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Post Mortem

Gravestones from the Past Were Way Cooler Than They Are Today

Headstones today are as boring and lifeless as the bodies that lie beneath. But in the past, headstones were a way to show the person's personality with quotes, miniature sculptures, and elaborate artwork.
May 5, 2015, 7:00pm

Photo courtesy of Brenda Sullivan

Brenda Sullivan hails from Central Massachusetts, a place with some of the oldest English colonial settlements in North America and centuries-old cemeteries. "When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother took me to the family cemetery on a regular basis to plant the trees and trim the bushes and tend the family graves," she said.

For Sullivan, cemeteries played an important role in her life from an early age. "Because I was going there as a little kid, I was always taught to appreciate the art on the gravestones. I was practicing my numbers on them, practicing my reading."

Photo courtesy of Bob Drinkwater

Pretty soon, Sullivan was doing gravestone rubbings as a way of bringing home the designs on the colonial tombstones. "I wanted more than just pieces of paper—I wanted the whole thing," she said. "I have an art history education and a background in small antique restoration. So I took what I knew, took my education and put it to work to develop a process that I could take into the cemetery and create replicas." This led Sullivan to start Gravestone Girls, a company which "create[s] decorative artwork using the beautiful and primitive images carved on olde New England gravestones."

Beyond providing the impetus to start Gravestone Girls—which, over the past 15 years, has grown into a full time job for Sullivan—this fondness for cemeteries led her to join the Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS), an organization that promotes the artistic and historical study of gravestones.


Founded in 1977, AGS has approximately 1,000 members and brings together headstone aficionados who approach the subject from the perspectives of "art, history, genealogy, archaeology, anthropology, conservation, or material culture." According to Sullivan, "membership of the AGS is vast. Everything from hobbyists to educators with PhDs. There's conservators and artists and everybody in between. You'd be amazed at how many niches there are in that genre."

Photo courtesy of Brenda Sullivan

Bob Drinkwater, a founding member of AGS, refers to the organization's approach as "multidisciplinary." Drinkwater is on the organization's Board of Trustees and even served as President at one time. Today, he a co-chair for the annual conference. According to Drinkwater, enthusiasm for all things colonial around the 1976 bicentennial led to spike in interest in gravestone studies that proved integral to the founding of AGS. "We rode that wave for a decade or so."

Drinkwater developed his liking for gravestones at a later age than Sullivan. "I was an undergrad at UMass Amherst. One spring afternoon, some classmates said, 'Hey, someone we know does gravestone rubbings. They're going up to the North Cemetery to show us what it's about.' So I went along—mostly for social reasons—and I guess that's when I started to get hooked on it." The next semester, Drinkwater took an archaeology course where he was assigned to read Jim Deet's book Invitation to Archaeology, and says he "got the first taste of a historical archaeologist's approach to gravestones. I just kind of took off from there. I've been doing it more or less on a volunteer basis ever since. Occasionally I get work I'm paid for, but mostly it's just stuff I'm interested in that needs to be done."

Photo courtesy of Brenda Sullivan

Like most things related to death, Sullivan says "there's still a little bit of a stigma attached to saying 'Hey, I'm going to go hang out at the cemetery this weekend.' When I tell people what I do, or that there's an association for gravestone studies with various like minded people, if I have ten people in the room, I have one that runs screaming from the room saying 'crazy, morbid, what's wrong with you people.' But the other nine go, 'Wow, that's so great. I love cemeteries, I thought I was the only one.'"

Sullivan tells me there are three major eras that characterize the evolution of American gravestones. The colonial period through the 1700s, the rural garden movement of the 19th Century, and the modern period of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Each era is different and reflects the attitudes and beliefs of society at the time. "As we moved from an agrarian culture to an industrial nation, and then in the early 20th Century, we don't want to talk about death at all. So we don't do anything with our gravestones except for put names on them and now, within the last 30 years or so with some newer technology, we're opening up to the idea of who we were and the things that we enjoyed while we were here. People are moving to personalizing their stones more."

Photo courtesy of Bob Drinkwater

The darker slate stone colonials that are common in old New England graveyards are Sullivan's favorite. "Images on them are primitive. They can be particularly brutal, but they are meant to speak to the population about their mortality and morality in a very direct way," she explained. Part of this is because the gravestones had to speak to both those who could read and those who couldn't. "The people that could read may not be able to take the time to look at the stones and read them and ponder the messages. But these graves are right in the middle of town a lot of times and these images are creeping up over the wall as you walk by. So it's a visual correction, a visual moral reminder. I call it a 'Scared Straight' program—the more brutal the image, the more straightforward the message. I think these have the most personality."

However, Sullivan says she's "never met a cemetery she didn't like" and is quick to point out that later eras have their charm as well: "I love the art and the extravagance of the Victorian era. All of the emotion and the sentimentality of these towering monuments. All the florals and sorrow. That appeals to me."

Photo courtesy of Bob Drinkwater

As for the more mundane creations of the 20th and 21st Centuries, Sullivan said that peoples' attitudes are beginning to change. "At one point I would have said that you'd never find a Gravestone Girl in a modern cemetery. There were no messages to be had, there was no personality. But the last 30 years or so, people have changed their attitudes. They're using technology to put engraved images on the stones. I always see new things." Now, Sullivan says she sees stones with more personality: engravings of koala bears, peaceful lakeside scenery with deer grazing, people's cars, their sewing machines—even a gravestone with a computer engraved on it. She knows it was a while back because it featured a desktop with a floppy disk drive.

With a bit of hesitation, Sullivan says her favorite gravestone is that of Lucinda Holman, a "clairvoyant physician" who died at the age of 29 in 1867. For his part, Bob Drinkwater stopped picking favorites 20 years ago. "I try to remain open to all of it. I don't think in those terms any more."

"Cemeteries are living history museums. You can walk through that gate at any moment in time and be transported back to two, three, in some cases four hundred years."

After more than 40 years of studying gravestones, he continues to make new findings. "One thing that has surprised me is that in historic New England cemeteries, among the descendants of the Puritans and the pilgrims, there are former slaves and free black people buried here and there. And most of their gravestones—at least in this area—are just like the gravestones for their white neighbors. We never knew they were there. And we're starting to recognize and acknowledge them. When I mention this to other people who are just getting interested in old cemeteries it kind of takes them by surprise too. Because if you just look at the stones you don't know who these people are."

Bob found this out through the work of the town engineer James A. Smith, who happened to be a genealogist. He had been given the assignment of looking into the cemetery's history in order to find out if there were any available plots. Since then, additional research was done by former physics Professor Bob Romer, who showed that slavery was actually pervasive in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts. "His book came as a shocker to a lot of people who were conditioned to think that slavery and that sort of thing was something that happened south of the Mason Dixon line, which is hardly the case. There's a lot of history that's been conveniently forgotten."

Brenda Sullivan explains: "In this headstone, it would appear she liked pelicans and his meter ran out. Yes, she liked pelicans, but the parking meter is not because he expired. He liked to leapfrog over them in his youth, and was apparently well known for it!" Photo courtesy of Brenda Sullivan

What does the future hold for gravestones? Drinkwater sees a variety of factors conspiring against a widespread creative explosion despite the advances in engraving technology for granite monuments that Sullivan is excited about. "Around here, the green cemetery movement is gaining steam. Cremation is also becoming much more popular as an alternative to in ground burial. I think fewer and fewer people are choosing to have gravestones. And when they do, they are often buying small simple names, dates and 'that'll do, thank you.' I think the golden age of funerary monuments has passed. Who knows where we're headed next, but it's probably less spectacular."

For Sullivan, the ability to be instantly transported back to the past means cemeteries will probably never lose their charm "[They] are really living history museums. You can walk through that gate at any moment in time and be transported back to two, three, in some cases four hundred years. It allows you to bridge the gap between people who lived before you and it gives you an insight not only on the individual, but on the family and on the community and the society and what their beliefs were in a given point in time. And they're free. And they're everywhere."

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