Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Gravestone of the Day: John and Esther Dunwell

John and Esther Dunwell, 1797, North Burial Ground, Providence, RI
A Memorial of
who died in Surinam in 1766,
aged 51 years.

wife of Capt. John Dunwell,
died Feb. 11, 1797,
aged 77 years.

Behold my night of death has come,
My flesh now rests beneath the tomb;
When the last trumpet shakes the skies,
Then shall my slumbering dust arise.

There is a sub-genre of cenotaphs in maritime communities that are dedicated to husbands who pre-deceased their wives by several decades. These men often died at sea or in far-flung ports. I have noticed a lot of these in Plymouth. In some of the most extreme cases, 50 or 60 years separate the deaths of husbands and wives.

The Dunwells died 31 years apart, but the gravestone still identifies Esther as the "wife of Capt. John Dunwell." I imagine that someone who died in Surinam probably wasn't home a lot even when he was alive. What does it mean to be the wife of someone who died three decades ago? This gravestone does some substantial imaginative work — it reunites two people across many years and many miles and restores the idealized version of their relationship: independent adult man and wife. The gravestone becomes a monument to a fiction that does not bear very much resemblance to day-to-day life.

I'm also trying to pay attention to is the chronology of resurrection imagery and allusions. This particular epitaph also appears on the Eleazer Nickerson stone (1796).

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