We can learn a lot about the life and values of our colonial and revolutionary ancestors by studying their cemeteries and gravestones. From the time of the earliest colonies until the mid-nineteenth century we can see the impact of death on their everyday lives, and the changes in their thoughts and fears surrounding life and death.
Many of our earliest settlers left for America in search of a home where they could practice their religion freely. Religious freedom was not tolerated, and those who did not conform to Catholicism were persecuted as heretics. The earliest Puritans who settled New England were driven to emigrate to the harsh wilderness of the new world with hopes of creating an idyllic society, firmly rooted in their religious beliefs and isolated from the influence of others.
These earliest settlers built small communes with modest dwellings clustered in a tight square enclosing a shared common area in the center. The Commons was planted with crops and cared for by all, to provide for the needs of the community. The community acted as one and each member was integral to its survival.
Early settlers were met with a very harsh environment. Weather, lack of food and supplies, disease, contaminated water, and hostile encounters with Native Americans all contributed to a high mortality rate in these tightly-clustered communities. The harshness of life, overwhelming fear of the unknown, and the grim reality of death drove these settlers to pray for their survival through their faith.
The communities in early New England sought the natural solace of the woods and hills for their burial grounds, where available, and rejected the practice of churchyard burials as a Papist influence. They chose sites hidden deep in the woods and thinned the trees and vegetation to provide a private and protected setting for their departed.
Early graveyards were dangerous and frightening places. The burial ground itself was devoid of grass or other plant life. Graves, hastily dug by hand in the cold and rocky New England soil, were shallow and unlined, and loosely filled at best. Graves were often left open in anticipation of more burials and boxes or coffins were not used.
Graves from this period were marked with both a headstone and a footstone, to resemble a bed, and it was during this time that we first see the now common east-west orientation of graves.
Local artisans used common rocks, slate, and marble as the raw material for the tombstones. Markers were shaped into upright tablets with rounded tops to represent a door or portal into the unknown, and the symbols carved into the stones reflected the community’s fears and hopes.
The most common symbol was the skeleton, skull or winged skull. Commonly known as death heads, the skulls represented the grim reaper and the finality of death. The most common epitaph was R. I. P. (Rest in Peace), reflective of the daily harshness of life. Other symbols evolved over time. An anchor, the emblem of a seaman, represented steadfastness; a bird came to symbolize the soul; a butterfly depicted resurrection; and a scallop shell represented the earthly Puritan pilgrimage.
The Revolutionary Colonists
In the early to mid-1700s, waves of new settlers to America brought with them the influences of their home land. Arrivals came in larger numbers and occurred more frequently. Trade developed to support the needs of the colonists and although the mortality rate remained high, the chances of survival of the communities increased.
Through these later arrivals we witness the influence of the Great Awakening, a religious revival movement that swept across Europe. The Great Awakening offered a more tolerant view of religion and the focus of daily life. God became a symbol of love and mercy, and society began to anticipate death as a reward for a pious life. And these colonists brought with them the traditional burial practices of churchyard burial grounds.
Unlike the Puritan burial grounds, the churchyard was not as dangerous and scary. Surrounding the church, they became part of the community and were seen as a daily reminder of family and friends and the finality of death. Burial grounds became the responsibility of the church sexton and were properly cared for and filled. The interred were often now placed in boxes or coffins, making the graves more stable. At time of loss, church elders gathered to dig and fill the graves of their congregation, and the graveyard became an extension of the church community.
The view that living a pious life would be rewarded after death gave rise to new tombstone icons that represented life that continues to grow. Symbols such as trees and flowers became prevalent, and this practice carried forward into the 19th century.
Gravestones of this time were primarily devoid of personal inscriptions, and they no longer carried the message of Rest In Peace. After the Revolution we begin to see the accomplishments of some of the more famous colonists reflected on their tombstones. The rank and service of some of our most noted Revolutionary soldiers may be found on some of these early gravestones.
Although the grave markers from this time typically give no clues to familial connections, as the small churchyards became over crowded, the practice of burying multiple family members in a single grave became more prevalent. We begin to find the stones of family members clustered together, and occasionally the layering of flat tomb coverings. Throughout the stages of American history, we can witness how the harshness of daily life became more tempered by the influx of colonists, improved chances of survival of the community, the more traditional influences of Europe, and with it the hope for a rewarding life after death.
Special thanks to Greta Thompson for her assistance with this article!