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Cemetery Art in Colonial Times

Nancy Burns

From Savor of Salt, edited by Jacqueline M. Dormitzer (Cohasset, Mass., 2006), pp. 74-78.

Nancy Burns, a resident of Cohasset, taught at the Marshfield schools. Her interest in American history led her to do fieldwork in local burial grounds, where she made gravestone rubbings. Here she describes the motifs and inscriptions she found on early tombstones in Cohasset’s cemeteries.

Cemeteries are more than places to bury the dead. In New England they are an expression of history. [They provide] a glimpse into the attitude and character of the community and [represent the artistic skills] of local citizenry.

[Cohasset’s Central and Beechwood cemeteries] offer fine examples of the varied carving styles prevalent during the eighteenth century. [Their gravestones feature motifs] of [skulls], winged souls, [and] idealized cherubim, and many are decorated with symbols of mortality and fertility: skull and crossbones, hourglasses, vegetables, hearts, flowers, vines, sunbursts, and sunflowers. [Around 1800 the carving styles changed dramatically, and the stereotyped urn-and-willow design is suddenly found all over New England.]
The artistry of the carver varies from stone to stone. Many of the early [designs] are barely etched into the slate, done in rudimentary strokes, with portraiture consisting of little more than an oval with eyes, nose, and mouth. Others have a richness of graphic design and are superbly executed by master craftsmen in three-dimensional form. The more expert the craftsman, the more intricate and deeply etched the carved design . . .

To the Puritan, death was an everyday occurrence. The stones were intended to honor the dead and serve as a reminder to the living. Since many could not read even English, let alone the Latin inscriptions, the carving and its symbolism provided a visual message for all . . .

[In the epitaphs] can be found keys to local or national history, bitter commentaries on life, speculations and affirmations of immortality, stories of ancient loves and shattered dreams . . . Inscriptions were taken not only from the Bible from also from books of devotional verse, and many an aspiring poet or clergyman contributed to the epitaphs. Only a century or two ago, readymade verses could be selected from books [that were as available as greeting cards are today]. Use of book verses explains why many stones have the same epitaph.

. . . Apparent from the gravestones and engravings is that [the history of this] coastal community . . . is intertwined with seafaring and its consequences. Off Jerusalem Road, surrounded by woods and swampy brush, is a raised cemetery [Green Gate] where two [stones memorialize] seafarers [who] were lost at sea: David Lincoln in November 1879 and Captain Cornelius Lincoln in November 1883.

The Beechwood Cemetery [also contains] examples of the winged skull and soul carvings, but many of the stones are badly deteriorated or overgrown with lichen. Three stones for the Whitcom children attest to the [high rate of infant mortality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries]. Elizabeth, aged three years, and Hannah, aged eight years, children of Israel and Hannah Whitcom, both died in March 1737. Three years earlier, on March 27, 1734, their brother, Job, aged six years, died.

Nearby are three small stones for the children of Stephen and Mary Stodder. David, aged eight years, and Sarah, aged ten years, both died on January 24, 1748, and their sister, Ann, died on January 21, 1748. Because the children all died within a few days of each other, it is safe to assume it was from some dread scourge such as smallpox or cholera.

In Central Cemetery a large white marble monument for Francis L. Pratt (1818-1897) and his wife, Sarah (1823-1875), and their six children causes a moment of sad reflection. Listed are the children, none of whom lived to adulthood, including three sons named Ezekiel. The first Ezekiel died July 7, 1851, aged one year; the second, September 4, 1852, aged six months; and the last, in 1865, at one year. Nearby is a white marble sphere for Ezekiel Pratt, M.D., which says he was “born on the memorable dark day, May 20, 1780, and died October 9, 1860, aged 80 years and 5 months.” Exactly why his birth was on a memorable dark day is not known. [Jane M. Hamilton, a resident of Cohasset, investigated this question and found that on that date the midday sky in New England was indeed inexplicably darkened. No eclipse occurred then, and no volcanic eruption has been recorded, but some scientists speculate that smoke from widespread forest fires to our west obscured the sun completely for several hours.]

There is an interesting double stone in the center of the cemetery that has engraved merely: “Two infants, 1790.” But nearby is a double stone with the usual winged skull that attests to the death of twin boys born to Thomas and Betty Bourn. The undecorated stone is probably the footstone. Born September 3, 1790, one died on the sixth and the other on the ninth of the same month.

Multiple births seemed to run in the Bourn family, for next to the twins’ stones is one for triplets of another Thomas Bourn. It says: “Here lyes the body of three children born at a birth, sons of Mr. Thomas Bourn and Mrs. Susanna Bourn, who died October 30, 1764.” Thomas Bourn, father of the triplets, is buried nearby. He died October 10, 1796, in his sixty-seventh year. His stone has an interesting epitaph: “This is the lot by heaven defin’d, to be the fate of all mankind. Death is a debt to nature due, which my body paid and so must you.”

Although it does not say, the two Bourn men were probably father and son, which would account for the inherited tendency for multiple births. Thomas Bourn, the son, appears to have been married twice, since there’s a nearby stone “In memory of Mrs. Jane Bourn, consort of Mr. Thomas Bourn, died June 9th, 1787, aged 19 years.” Her epitaph reads: “Some hearty friends may drop a tear/ On these dry bones and say,/ These limbs where active once like mine,/ but mine must be as they.” Where is used instead of were, which could be due to a misspelling on the part of the engraver.

A white slab marble stone near the center entrance to Central Cemetery chronicles the settling in America of the Pratt family. The stone was erected by the descendants of the original Pratt settlers sometime in the 1800s, since white marble was rarely used before then. It says: “Phineas Pratt came over from England with the Weston Colony in 1623 and first settled in Weymouth. The Indians threatening to destroy the colonies, he traveled in the then wilderness, with the Indians following to destroy him. After three days he arrived at Plymouth and gave information to the Governor, and by the blessing of God the colony was saved.” He died at Charlestown on April 19, 1680, aged ninety years, and has a tombstone yet to be seen. One of his sons, Aaron, settled in this place and died in 1735, aged eighty-one years. Aaron II, his son, died at age seventy-seven. Thomas, son of Aaron II, died in 1818, aged eighty-five years. Sarah, his wife, died in 1806, aged sixty-two years.

While the Pratt family in Cohasset may not have found the Phineas Pratt stone, Harriette Forbes, in her book Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them, 1653-1800, mentions it and shows a picture of the stone. Decorated with a winged skull, hourglass, pick, and spade and a few words of Latin, the stone says: “Here lies ye body of Phinehas Pratt, aged about 90 yrs. Dec’d April 19, 1680, & was one of ye first English inhabitants of ye Massachusetts Colony.”

Another interesting stone is one for Urian Oakes, which has a finely carved skull and crossbones with a winged soul underneath. It says, “Here lies buried the body of Mr. Urian Oakes, who died Febry 1st, 1776, aged 47 years & 2 months. Who mourn his loss suppress ye pious tears, ye wish him out of heaven to wish him here.” The skull and crossbones on the Oakes stone is representative of the kind of work done by Captain John Homer of Boston, a known associate of colonists working for liberty from England. From 1758 to 1797 Captain Homer was paid for about forty stones, according to Forbes in her book . . .

 From Nancy Burns, “Cemetery Art Reflects History,” Cohasset Mariner, May 10, 1979. Reprinted by permission of the author.