Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Stow's (MA) Cemetery - Headstone Art

Stow's Lower Village Cemetery, burials 1700 to present.
Slate headstones meant to be read while standing opposite
the grave. Click on photos to enlarge.
In the early Stow years, when people died, they were buried in the Lower Village Cemetery with their graves oriented east-west, feet pointing east, so that on Resurrection Day, when “…the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised…” they would arise facing the new day. Headstones were inscribed on the far side of the deceased. This way, a person reading the inscription would be standing on the other side from the body.

The Lower Village Cemetery was located near the original meeting house. A kiosk on the south side of the cemetery has a map on one side with numbers for the graves and a numerically ordered list of the 500-odd burials on the other side, showing names, dates of death, ages and dates of birth. The list is not up to date, as there are at least a half-dozen 21st century burials not shown. The earliest interment on record dates to 1711. Given Stow was settled in the 1680s, either everyone was preternaturally healthy or else earlier burials were not properly recorded. 

UMK for graves without headstones
Colonial era graveyards were not as tidy as now. Families did not own plots, graves were dug between graves, and over long periods of time stones were lost and burial spaces reused. Bones of the previously deceased were dumped in a common pit, burned, or left under where the new coffin would go. Stow's oldest cemetery is not quite that ancient, but there are many spaces where gravestones had once been, the only evidence now being a circular metal marker flush with the ground, lettered "UMK" for unmarked.

One of the few skull motif headstones in Lower Village Cemetery

The great majority of the headstones in Lower Village are made of slate, many obscured by over-growing lichen. Fewer are marble. Fewer still, granite. Familiar names include Brooks, Brown, Conant, Gates, Goodnow, Hale, Randall, Taylor and Whitney. Among the Whitneys, one stone is for Richard Whitney (1692-1775), next to it Hannah, his wife, and next to her Hannah, his wife. Richard and Hannah-1 had eight children before she died at the age of 50. Two years later he married Hannah-2, a widow who had five children from her first marriage. Richard and Hannah-2 had no additional children. They both passed away in 1775, after 30 years together.

Eastern Massachusetts headstone art changed through the centuries, the changes usually beginning in Boston and the neighboring cities, then radiating outward. The 1600s were characterized by a death's head - a toothy stylized skull flanked by wings. By the 1700s another iconographic motif took over. Called a winged cherub or a soul effigy, this motif was characterized by a fleshy face and life-like eyes, again flanked by wings. Many of the headstones in the Lower Village Cemetery display this image. By the late 1700s and early 1800s headstones featured a willow tree, an urn, or often the combination of the two. The willow was an ancient symbol of mourning. Urns were symbols of Roman-era items used to contain the deceased's ashes.

Headstone art in the Hartshorn/Mullicken style
A small subset of stones in Stow present an entirely different direction - a simplified, mask-like face, no wings, with much of the rest of the stone showing circles filled with spirals or stylized flower outlines. These look very modern, but date to 1700-1760. Massachusetts stone carvers associated with this style were John Hartshorn, Robert Mullicken and Mullicken's three sons.

To visit this cemetery, park at Shaw's Plaza and walk over. Its layout predates the Rural Cemetery Movement, which made its first appearance in the United States with Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge (1831). That innovation called for a site distant from the immediate neighborhood of meeting houses or churches, either town owned or privately owned, often on a hillside near the outer edges of town, with winding paths and extensive landscaping. Cemeteries became not what you passed on your way to Sunday service, but rather a place you might visit to honor the departed, take a meditative walk, or even have a picnic. Stow's newest cemetery - Brookside (1864) - is more aligned with the latter concept while Hillside (1849) - Stow's second cemetery - is more of the old style.

Cupid design for headstone; popular in the 1700s
Tombstone art has become common again. Headstones now tend to be long-lasting granite. Rather than being hand-carved, these very hard stones are etched with a computer-guided laser. Images can range from simple information to portraits of the departed, or perhaps something important from their life. In Matinicus Cemetery, Matinicus Island, Maine, some of the stones include an image of the lobster boat that belonged to the deceased.  

Maynard's Glenwood Cemetery was dedicated in 1871, so it contains none of these old-style slate stones or headstone art. There are 20-30 stones dated earlier than 1871; either these were buried in anticipation that the town would purchase the land for a town cemetery or else they were relocated from family plots on family land after the cemetery was open for business. 

No comments:

Post a Comment