Studying Gravestones and the Lives they Depict

The first gravestones in New England were simple rectangles.  Then in the 1720s, death’s head began to be featured on the tops of the stones.  The figures would usually be graced with lines, as if they were ascending up into heaven.

1720s gravestone in Old Deerfield cemetary, with the rounded corners of the period.
1720s gravestone in Old Deerfield cemetery, with the rounded corners of the period.

Forty years later, the motif du jour was winged skulls, and adornments around the sides of the stones, which now had circles in the top corners.

Then in the early 1800s, the skulls became winged faces. Later folk designs depicting slightly more realistic, symbolic icons of the people buried beneath the stones were more common. Urns and willows were the final motif before the style reverted back to simple rectangles, just before 1800.

Tonight I spent time studying things in the graveyard, at a  GCC class called Gravestone Studies taught by Bob Drinkwater of Amherst. I learned a lot and I look forward to Saturday’s field trip to Greenfield’s Federal Street Cemetery. Bob said he chose this one because it has a lot of variety and offers good examples of many different kinds of stones and eras.

The materials used for the stones depended on where the graveyards were located. In the Berkshires, there were  nearly all marble.  In lower Hampden county  it was granite, in Deerfield and Conway, slate was common. And sandstone dominated in Hampshire county. Some of the sandstone was redstone; almost maroon in color, or else regular sandstone that could look almost like granite. Each stone was carved from top to bottom, and often spelling of common words was different, since, as Bob pointed out, there was no official grammar or dictionaries that people referred to to spell each word in 1725.

A few graves told poignant stories, like one found in the old Deerfield cemetery. A man died at age 27, after falling from his horse and spending hours circling around in the snow.  Atop this grave was a clock striking six. Perhaps this meant that his life was cut short by half?

Another grave from this same cemetery told a story of a man named Live Mehman Hinsdell, who was twice “captivated by salvages,” taken to Canada, and died at age 63.  Spelling wasn’t important, what mattered were the lives depicted on the stones.