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Gravestones of New England: About

Gravestones of New England

Our Early History Carved in Stone

The early New England settlers found themselves in a harsh, unfamiliar environment, looking for a new beginning. What they brought with them were their skills, ingenuity, and, more than anything else, their perseverance and their religious faith. One of their legacies, one that still resonates in our culture, is revealed on the stones in early New England graveyards. With their sometimes inscrutable images, these stones provide glimpses into how these early settlers viewed this world and the next. Sermons, journals, and other writings from this period reveal a grim vision, and the gravestones' images reflect the same severity. From approximately 1640-1810, the craft of stonecarving flourished in New England, with hundreds of carvers producing thousands of works. Most of the stones still exist, their striking combination of beauty, oddity, grimness, and whimsicality available to anyone willing to search them out. Few people, though, will visit and view these underappreciated works of art, possibly because they deal so deliberately with death. Continue reading from Carved in Stone

Puritan and Early New England Headstone Symbols

Early gravestones found mainly in the New England area have a very specific look to them. It makes sense since they are some of the oldest cemeteries in the country. Unlike many stones you find across the country, they have well-defined sections and the look of a bed’s headboard. The top, rounded section is the tympanum or lunette, the two smaller sides with rounded tops are finials (sometimes referred to as “shoulders”), and the main area of worded information is called the tablet. The tympanum was the location of the death’s head or other main symbolic carvings. The finials were for the gravestone’s ornamental carvings.  Here’s a list of the most common symbols on Puritan New England gravestones:

  • Coffin - Mortality
  • Hourglass - The passage of time
  • Hourglass with wings - Time flies
  • Scythe - Traditional tool of Death personified; the “last harvest” 
  • Shovel and pickaxe - Mortality
  • Skeleton - Anatomical personification of death
  • Skull - Death; sin
  • Skull and crossbones - Mortality
  • Winged skull - Also known as a death’s head; represented death’s flight

Eventually, Puritanism lost its stronghold on the people. The population was becoming more diverse, including in their religious beliefs. The people started focusing on their lives outside the church rather than on the doom and gloom of the Puritan beliefs. The false accusations of the Salem Witch Trials attested to Puritanism’s failings, which was amplified after the deaths of 20 innocent people and the arrests of 150 more. As Puritanism faded away, the second wave of New England gravestone carvings began. The people were focusing on the growth and prosperity of business and community. Continue reading from Cake

From Our Collection

Link to The American Resting Place by Marilyn Yalom in Freading
Link to Next Door to the Dead by Kathleen Driskell in Freading
Link to Carved in Stone by Thomas Gilson in the Catalog
Link to Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister in Freading
Link to Early Gravestones of Southern Maine by Ron Romano in Freading

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