In the last decades of the eighteenth century, New England gravestones underwent a stylistic revolution that mirrored the country's political revolution. The deep, plastic, organic shapes of the 17th and early 18th centuries gave way to light, planar, geometric forms (this swing from the sensual to the cerebral can also be observed in furniture, tableware, picture frames, and many other types of material objects — a phenomenon is called “shared mental structures”). In addition to these stylistic changes, the content of gravestone decorations shifted from soul effigies, spiritual breasts, and other religious symbols to neoclassical elements such as urns, willows, columns, and laurel wreaths.
These artistic transformations reflect an evolving worldview in which classical republican ideas and aesthetics (as filtered through popular understanding of the Enlightenment) encroached on the provincial culture of New England Puritanism. While Americans’ interest in the ancient republics translated into an explosion of neoclassical style in popular culture (town names, architecture, people signing letters to the editor with classical names), many New Englanders were uncomfortable with the growing influence of “reason” when they thought that it might threaten their religious traditions.
New England gravestones from the period 1770-1820 illustrate ordinary people’s attempts to accommodate both neoclassical and Christian ideas into their eschatologies.
During the period 1690-1770, New England gravestones were typically tripartite slabs decorated with symbols and bearing short, factual epitaphs. While there was considerable variation and development in gravestone art during this period, most stones (particularly pre-1750) featured natural images (such as vines, breasts, flowers, and hourglasses) that had theological significance. For example, the breasts visible on many 17th-century represent the Scriptures, which provided “divine milk” to nourish the soul. As Edward Taylor (1642-1729) wrote,
Lord put these nibbles then my mouth into
And suckle me therewith I humbly pray,
Then with this milk thy Spiritual Babe I'st grow,
And these two milke pails shall themselves display
Like to these pritty twins in pairs round neate
And shall sing forth thy praise over this meate.
If you think that’s a little weird, don’t read anything written by 17th-century Franciscans.
Epitaphs from the pre-1770 period typically focus on the physical presence of the body and often begin with “Here lies buried . . .” or “Here lyes the Body of . . . ” or “Here lies the mortal part of . . .” The earlier the stone, the less likely it is that it will have any epitaph beyond the deceased person’s name, date of death, and age (women also often have their husbands’ names and ministers were more likely to have more elaborate epitaphs). When ordinary people do have a verse after their biographical information, it is usually a one-liner such as, “Ye memory of ye just is blessed,” or “Blessed are ye Dead who die in ye Lord.” The religious beliefs of the community are conveyed through images and placement (stones often face East so that the dead can sit upright at the last trumpet), rather than through words.
After 1770, the images on New England gravestones underwent a profound stylistic shift. Instead of the undulating leaves, death’s heads, and winged soul effigies that adorn earlier stones, gravestones of the late 18th century are typically decorated with columns, urns, and weeping willows. It is very rare to find a stone from the 1800-1820 period that is not ornamented with these neoclassical symbols. At the same time, gravestones began to lose their function as markers of the location of a body awaiting resurrection and came to be regarded as memorials to benefit the living. Instead of “here lies,” these epitaphs began with “Sacred to the Memory of . . .” or “Erected in Remembrance of . . .”
Yet, even as New Englanders embraced the neoclassical aesthetic, they remained skeptical of rationality’s ability to fulfill their spiritual needs. As the religious decorations disappeared, they were replaced by epitaphs that affirmed the deceased’s religious faith. Whereas earlier stones expressed the person’s hope for salvation pictorially, stones cut in the neoclassical style often have verses added to the epitaph to assure the reader that the dead, “died in hopes of salvation through his merits.”
New Englander’s ambivalence toward the Enlightenment worldview is best summarized by the gravestone of Oliver Miles of Concord, who died in 1820 at the age of 82. His stone, like many others of the period is decorated with the geometric columns, urns, and subtly incised borders that characterize the neoclassical style. Despite this aesthetic choice, his epitaph reads:
Can reason’s dictates be obey’d?
So weak alas! Her strongest aid;
O let religion then be nigh,
Her consolations never die.
Epitaphs also illuminate the tension between republican ideology and traditional New England Congregationalism’s idea of what constituted a life well lived. The ideal republican citizen was judged by his good works in service to the polity, while Congregational theology abhorred any “doctrine of works.” (I don't mean to say that neighborliness and service to the community were unimportant to earlier New Englanders, but these virtues were grounded in a specifically Christian milieu.) Famed patriots such as General Washington were not beloved because they were men of great faith, but because they were men of great deeds and “character.” The tension between these two systems of merit plays out in epitaphs during the Early Republican period. While the rare pre-1750 epitaph that enumerated a person’s good points generally confines itself to his/her piety and sobriety, later epitaphs extol the deceased’s “usefulness,” “civic spirit,” and good works, as well as his/her faith. Such is the case on the John Cuming stone (1788) in Concord, MA:
Naturally active as to genius & disposition, he early appeared on the stage of life, where he conducted with spirit & dispatch & acquired honor in different stations. As a physician, he was, beloved, useful, & celebrated. His compassion for the distressed hastened him to their relief; & his hand was as charitable as healing to the poor; — and as a Magistrate, he magnified his office, nor held the sword of justice in vain. Constitutionally particular, animated & warm in his disposition & temper, earnestness & zeal, affection & precision were his characteristics: hence from his youth, in conversation, he was cheerful & affable; in civil business, prompt and expeditious; in private & public worship, punctual and fervent; in charity liberal; in piety devout. His learning, dignity, and donations procured him an honorary degree from Harvard College: to that society for the support of a Professor of Physic, & to the Church and Town of Concord, for public, charitable, and religious purposes, he made generous donations in his last will.
The Righteous shall be in everlasting Remembrance.
A century earlier, Cuming's donations, public service, and civic virtues may not have been as important to his position as one of the “righteous,” but they were clearly important to his community in 1788.
Some New England epitaphs from the Early Republican period focused solely on the deceased’s good citizenship, excluding any mention of religious virtue. By 1805, Thomas Hunt could be remembered as a good man and a solid citizen, even if piety was not among his memorable qualities:
Here lies the remains of
Mr. Thomas Hunt
of Concord, late of Boston
who died Jan. 8, 1805, Aetat 22
Tho’ death consigned him to an early grave, his amiable life and sprightly talents will long survive in the recollection of those who knew him. His heart was formed for friendship and society and embraced in its affections his country’s good. The millitary [sic] science was his pride, and early he became a member of a volunteer company in Boston, in which he acquited [sic] himself with honour, his energies in vindicating the injured rights of his country, were justly anticipated.
I’m sorry that all of these examples are from Concord — I just visited last week, so they’re fresh in my mind and I have pictures. For non-Concord examples of stylistic progression, please see this follow-up post.
These are just a few of the thousands of gravestones in New England, but they are representative. There’s no question that religion was important to the New Englanders of the Early Republican period, but Christian faith was no longer the only important criterion for determining the value of an individual life. After the Revolution, patriotism and civic “usefulness” offered an alternative way for people to live a good life.