~ The Three Most Common Graveyard Motifs and their Meanings ~
The three most popular of all the gravestone motifs were the Death's-Head, the Soul Effigy or the Winged Cherub and the Urn and willow though countless other exist. The following is an alphabetical list:
The Elizabethan winged death's-head with its blank eyes and tooth-filled grin was used from 1620 until around 1700, as in the Captain Edward Russell stone (figure 1 below) found in Salem, Massachusetts, either by itself or with secondary symbols like the hourglass, pick, scythe or crossbones as in the Sarah Christophers stone (Figure 2 below) found in New London, Connecticut. These symbols of mortality emphasizing the brevity of life and the awesome power of death symbolically depict the soul's voyage through death. When used with a vine piercing the skull it's representative of life in heaven.
†††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††††Figure 1††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††Figure 2
The Soul Effigy
Around 1700 the grim death's-head began to soften and be transformed. By the 1750's the death's-head was replaced by the winged cherub or soul effigy. The John Crowninshield stone (figure 3 below) found in Salem, Massachusetts and the Elizabeth Bartlett stone (figure 4 below) found in Plymouth, Massachusetts, both show this softening transition. This symbolizes Man's immortal side, and is suggesting themes of a heavenly reward after death rather than the fearsome grimness of death. Along with the change from the grim death's-head to the soul effigy the epitaphs also changed from "Here lies the body of..." to things stressing the joy of resurrection.
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The Urn and the Willow
By the beginning of the nineteenth century more questioning intellectual sects such as Unitarianism accompanied by a neoclassical revival in the arts yielded to a new gravestone motif - the urn and the willow such as the Oliver Barber stone (figure 5) found in South Canterbury, Connecticut and the Reverend Luther Clark (figure 6) also found in South Canterbury, Connecticut. The urn contained the remains of the deceased from which the soul arises to heaven and the willow symbolizes the mourning for the earthly life and joy of the new celestial life. Epitaphs again changed to read " In memory of..." or "Sacred to the memory of..." avoiding any reference to death or eternity. Unfortunately by the mid 1800's we find little else but this design until the art of pictorial stone carving seemed to vanish altogether.
†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††Figure 5††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Figure 6
Gravestones A New England Art Form © 1992-2007 D. A. Jacobs
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