Friday, August 18, 2006


My wife is rather partial to visiting old graveyards, and I guess that I have picked up the habit. It sounds rather morbid, or at least Victorian-era sentimental (did I mention that my wife's specialty is Victorian British literature?), but it is often quite interesting what you find on gravestones. For example, you can tell something of the wealth of the family of the dearly departed by how elaborately carved the headstone was. Here's the stone of Josiah Soule, a distant relative who died sometime in the late 17th century in Duxbury, Massachusetts. (I could actually somewhat read the date when I visited there last year, but it is certainly not readable in this picture.) It is a rather powerful feeling to find yourself standing atop the graves of your first ancestors in America.

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A bit less than a century later, another relative of mine has a considerably nicer carving--and this is actually pretty typical of the Duxbury gravestones of that era.

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You will notice on both headstones there are weirdly extraterrestial looking faces. In the 17th century, Puritans often put skulls on headstones as a reminder, in the words of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard":
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave”
Life (at least this life) is fleeting, and be prepared to meet your Maker. By the time of the Revolution, this depressing reminder is starting to give way to angels--which comes from the Greek word angelos for messenger--a reminder that while this life is fleeting, there is hope. See this 1774 headstone from the same graveyard. It's primitive art, but at least you can see the wings!

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