I recently got a copy of “Graven Images: New England stonecarving and its symbols 1650-1815” by Allan Ludwig. I’ve read sippets here and there about the meaning of certain gravestone symbols, but have never done a deep dive beyond a stylistic one. This book is really fantastic-it gets into the cultural beliefs and the “how” of the formation of the symbols over time. For example, the Puritans only used art in their burial rights as a way to express a spiritual transition that words alone couldn’t express.
The author goes deeply into what a “sign” and a “symbol” is and how they operate in a culture. A sign is merely an icon or simplfiied illustration that describes a concrete thing-think a sign shaped like a shoe for a cobbler. A symbol represents something that has a knowable and unknown quality, which in this case refers to a person dying and their soul transcending into the after life. Here, the person dies and its a concrete experience. The dead body is in front of you and has changed from a lively, breathing individual into an inanimate corpse. We still struggle today answering the question of what happens after we die-where does that thinking, breathing part of us go.
One of the most commonly recognized symbol from this era is the “Deathhead” or skull with wings. In later years as the symbol morphed into a more human face flanked by wings. When I had my studio in Salem, people most commonly asked about this, thinking it was merely a sign of death. We are so historically far from the cultural rituals that gave this symbol its meaning, that passing time is how a symbol gets stripped of its true meaning and devolves into a sign.
The heavily religious puritans, who abstained from any ostentatious displays or decoration, this had deep spiritual meaning. It must have been even more powerful given the graveyard was the only place they expressed themselves artistically, so its the ONLY times in their lives they have these images. Death was a big deal. In Massachusetts alone, they had to pass two different laws to reel in funerary practices since it was basically bankrupting people. It was custom at the time to not only have a stone made, but also large fabric signage known as “broadcloths” that would be printed usually with the person’s name and graveyard iconography. Not only that, there would a whole procession through town with horses draped in black, with the church bells tolling for you. You were also expected to have mourning jewelry made for immediate family members(usually in gold), printed versions of the sermon for people to bring home, and you were expected to invite people to the funeral by sending a pair of gloves! I just love that, especially thinking about people judging the deceased by glove quality. On top of that, you then had people come back to your house to have food and wine. The average person made between 100-300 pounds a year and the average funeral cost 100 pounds, and people died with a lot more frequency that we see now. So it was basically bankrupting people. I found a drawing of Elizabeth the First’s funeral procession in 1603 that shows an more elaborate procession but has the broadcloths, banners, and funeral clothing I’ve been describing: