New England Cemeteries Offer Some of America's Earliest Public Art
The Puritans and their New England descendants are not often - if ever - celebrated in the annals of public art. After all, these self-righteous religious were only once-removed from 17th-century European iconoclasm in which all sorts of art and monuments were destroyed. Yet by the late 17th century, American Puritans demonstrated that they were not immune to the power of the monuments with symbols and sometimes, even images. These can be seen inscribed and carved on the gravestones in early cemeteries across New England. I love visiting these places, which remain austere and beautiful, and over the years have taken - unsystematically - many pictures.
The plain shapes of the gravestones, and the plain language of their inscriptions are strikingly modern in their forthright yet laconic forms. I doubt I can offer anything new to the long and rich study of New England graveyards and their stones, except perhaps to think of them as one of the earliest forms of American public art. The other day I stopped at the beautiful and peaceful Old Burying Ground in in Falmouth, Massachusetts, which is not even on the local tourist maps, though it was once at the center of the town.
Among the earliest funerary symbols is the skull or death's head, usually winged, familiar to us from popular pirate lore, but actually a common symbol in post-Reformation Christian art, including elaborate works of the Baroque period which remind viewers of the passage of time, and the futility of fleshly pleasures and materials things - all the while demonstrating a great pleasure in the emotion and sensuality of art. By the mid 18th-century, this more depressing image of the death's head was widely replaced with a more benign winged face, interpreted as that of an angel, or perhaps as an effigy of the soul of the deceased. A few representative examples of this motif can e found in the Old Burial Ground of Falmouth, Massachusetts, and also in Brandon, Vermont.
The Momento Mori aspect of the funerary images are often emphasized by the inscriptions. The Brandon gravestone of Solomon Hinds, who died at age 28 in 1798 admonishes us that:
By the late 18th century, and through the mid-19th century, other more picturesque motifs are introduced, including the weeping willow and the urn. These are found in abundance at Falmouth, as well as the hand with a finger pointing heavenward. A number of variations on the willow and urn themes co-exist and were seemingly carved by the same workshop, and even perhaps the same artist. The symbolism of the willow is obvious - it is alive and it is weeping. The urn's imagery is more complex since it derives from ancient art. The urn was both the repository of the deceased's ashes, and when shown covered probably represents the grave or tomb. But urns are also often shown alight, holding a flame, suggesting continued life after death, for the soul if not the body.
In Falmouth, the image of the hand with the finger pointing upward is occurs more and more by mid-century. These look like the work of one artist - but they may represent a more positive or hopeful view of death. the disembodied hand recalls a long tradition in religious art. In Jewish art, and sometimes in Christian art, God or his representative is represented by an outstretched arm or hand - either open or pointing.
These these hands in Falmouth have the clarity of modern day exit sign - pointing the way out and up. Moses Fisher, who died in 1848 at age 39, is remembered with this optimistic couplet:
For more information see: Stephen P. Broker, Death and Dying in Puritan New England: A Study Based on Early Gravestones, Vital Records, and other Primary Sources Relating to Cape Cod, Massachusetts