A few weeks ago, I found myself in Cambridge (our fair city), Massachusetts for about 36 hours. Despite it being a very quick trip, I had about three hours that were unoccupied when I got there, and since I hadn’t actually been on that side of the Charles River since January of 2012, I decided that getting out to see as many cool historic places as I could was more important than resting. I walked a circuitous path within a two mile radius of Harvard Square, seeing many amazing places from my shortlist (like Historic New England’s ca. 1682 Cooper-Frost House) and even more places that happened to cross my path in between my intended points.
Near the top of my list was the Old Burying Ground, adjacent to the ca. 1760 Christ Church and 1833 First Church Unitarian / Universalist Church (original meeting house constructed from 1633-1636). I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many seventeenth-century gravestones in the same cemetery before, even in Boston and Salem. (Editor’s note: I’m sure that it’s quite possible that I have actually been in cemeteries that have more seventeenth-century burials as this one, but I certainly didn’t see them if that is the case.) I fully expected to see a lot of eighteenth-century ‘stones, but I guess I just assumed that there wouldn’t be many (if any) from before the church was founded.
I’ve been fascinated with old cemeteries for some time now, and became even more fascinated with them during graduate school in some historical archeology classes that I took as electives. I’ve always thought that customs around death and dying in a culture is a fascinating window to view a culture through, generally, so old cemeteries and gravestones are a natural, physically and space-adjacent manifestation of that. Anyway, in a graduate school course reading I came across a slightly different version of the following graphic, which blew my mind. Someone had actually gone out and collected data from this historic, New England cemetery, and then plotted out battleship curves to show how three different primary styles of gravestone ornamentation had waxed and waned in popularity over 100 years. That was (and is) so cool!
Since then I’ve made it my business (or, perhaps more literally, my recreational pleasure) to photograph as many older gravestones as I can find, wherever I go. The death’s head motif, in particular, has always completely entranced me. However, rarely do I get to do a more complete inventory of any given cemetery, as most of my travel tends to be work-related, so I don’t have an incredible amount of time to spend on my recreational gravestone obsession. But on my recent trip to Cambridge, I found myself with nowhere to be for several hours, and this incredible old cemetery surrounding me, so I went a little deeper in my documentation. Please do note, I still didn’t even come close to recording every gravestone in the cemetery, but I did photograph about forty unique ones (and oh man, my quads were really thrilled about it, as for each of those gravestones I had to squat down low to get a clean shot, and then several detail shots for most of them).
Of the gravestones that I documented, the oldest was from 1676—belonging to a John Poulter, who died at 41—and the most recent was from 1846—belonging to an Eliza Brackett, who died at 32.
As you can see from the images, these gravestones are noticably different. One is much more stark, with no decoration other than the inscription, while the other has heavy, almost chunky, symmetrical ornamentation on the sides and top. The inscription, also, is noticeably more typographical and refined in the later gravestone: Mixed cases! Thick ascenders with thin bars! Ball terminals! But, lovely typography aside, my true passion is for the older, more ornate gravestones, like Mr. Poulter’s up there.
Eagle-eyed readers may have already caught this, but the main decorative element of that gravestone is called a “death’s head.” If you know me at all, you’ve probably heard me talk about death’s heads forever, but for anyone who hasn’t had that misfortune, they were a very common decorative element on early American gravestones. It’s a grim image, with a old, spooky vibe to us in the 21st century. But to the people who lived in Cambridge and other parts of New England in the 17th and 18th centuries, these death’s heads were much more than that. They were, of course, reminders of death. They showed viewers the very face of death. But they also were a small beacon of hope. Carving the intricate designs in these stones would have been no small feat, and with all of the hard work that went into just eking out a living—growing food, keeping your shelter in good repair, hunting, sharpening and repairing your tools, tending livestock, mending and making clothing and shoes, etc.—carving anything more than a name and date into these pieces of stone was done for a reason. It was hard work, but it was done anyway. It mattered to these people.
So what’s hopeful about a toothy skull with wings sticking out of it like a terrifying rendition of a golden snitch, you may ask? My inner art historian’s reading is that the death’s head is a two sides of the same coin: the grim reality of death, symbolized by the skull; the hopefulness of a rewarding afterlife, symbolized by the wings. While there’s really no way to prove this interpretation, others have speculated similarly, so I feel pretty good about it.
Another, non-mutually-exclusive interpretation, is that the wings are a representation of life, specifically the fleeting nature of it. In fact, in many gravestones, this interpretation is emphasized by additional text or symbology. For example, in Mr. Poulter’s gravestone, if you look closely below the tympanum (that’s the large rounded center part on top of the main rectangular body; the two smaller rounded parts on the sides are called “shoulders”), right under the death’s head’s chin, you can see an hourglass. Again this is paired with a more visceral reminder of our mortality—some long-bones.
The subtext of this time-related iconography is also frequently brought into text with the Latin inscription, “Fugit Hora” (“time flies” or literally, “the hour flies“).
Another common Latin inscription, often paired with Fugit Hora, and perhaps more well known, is “Memento Mori,” or “remember death.” Those two phrases, and their presence together on many headstones from this period, hammer home the juxtaposition between life and death that these early colonists were depicting through their iconography. Death was very real, and very present in their lives. They couldn’t hide from death, and they didn’t try to. They almost certainly feared death, just as we do today, but it was just so much more common in their lives that their relationship to it was fundamentally different. As such, in their funerary practices they wanted to look death almost-literally right in the face, in order to celebrate and be thankful for what time they were given. And I find that fascinating.
In that spirit, I spent some time shooting as many older-looking gravestones as I could with the limited free-time I had in Cambridge, and created a gallery and small spreadsheet with the names, dates, and photo IDs for each one for your perusal. My dream would be to take a day or so and actually do them all, to complete the records for this cemetery at Find A Grave (which is a great website for finding a specific grave, or browsing through known burials in lots of cemeteries). Anyway, feel free to browse through, and look for the progression from death’s heads to cherubs, and take some time to admire the intricate floral motifs and other symbolism on some of these guys. I hope it’s interesting, helpful, or both!