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On old gravestones, a 'teachable moment' about death, hundreds of years later

The Old Hadley Cemetery in Hadley, Massachusetts.
Carrie Healy
The Old Hadley Cemetery in Hadley, Massachusetts.

Many people attempt to re-create little graveyards on their lawns to celebrate the fall season and Halloween.

This starkly contrasts with the early American tradition observed in the book "Reading the Gravestones of Old New England" by Tyringham, Massachusetts, author John Hanson.

He met up with NEPM’s Carrie Healy last week at the Old Hadley Cemetery.

John Hanson, author: Halloween is wonderful and I'm all in favor of it. But this is very different.

The way to think about old burial grounds like this is as a place where these Calvinist Congregationalists left permanent memorials — not just to the memory, but to the righteousness, to the virtue of their ancestors. These old burial grounds, which are largely abandoned today, were visited. They were an integral part of the community.

For these early Congregationalists, death was not just a private family tragedy, it was a teachable moment. And we see that in funeral sermons, we see that in diaries, and we see that carved on these stones.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: And about the carving on these stones, many of these epitaphs have personal stories about how somebody died. Others have religious ties.

The 1791 headstone of Lt. Jonathan Warner in the Old Hadley (Mass.) Cemetery.
Carrie Healy
The 1791 headstone of Lt. Jonathan Warner in the Old Hadley (Mass.) Cemetery.

I believe that the carvers were mostly order-takers. In some cases, the deceased would have indicated, or perhaps even written down what they wanted their epitaph to be. It might have been in a commonplace book that was kept. It might have been a dog-eared favorite hymn. I think it mostly fell to the bereaved survivors to choose a verse that they liked, that they think reflected well or accurately upon the deceased, maybe helped by the minister.

Regardless, these are very deliberately chosen verses. And I would emphasize that. These were not prefabricated or picked off a shelf or from a sample book. These should be read as strongly held personal statements about these questions of eternity and one's fate after death, which preoccupied these people every day of their mortal lives.

This one that we're standing in front of now has the angelic figure at the top.

Don't think of that as an angel. That's the soul effigy. That face with the wings — that represents the soul leaving the ground, heading up to paradise.

A marked contrast to the earlier winged death's head. That's definitely a statement of, 'You are standing at a site of death. I want you to focus on the fact that you will be under the ground and contemplate what that means for your soul."

Here, a couple decades later, we move to this slightly more hopeful iconography.

This was a death at the end of December in 1791. 

Seventy-four years of age — a good, ripe old age.

"This stone stands but to tell,
Where his dust lies, not what he was,
When saints do rise, that day will show,
The part he acted here below."
This epitaph speaks to the actual person who died.

John Hanson kneels in the Old Hadley Cemetery in Hadley, Massachusetts, to read an 18th century headstone.
Carrie Healy
John Hanson kneels in the Old Hadley Cemetery in Hadley, Massachusetts, to read an 18th century headstone.

Yes. And death was a teachable moment for these people. And the lesson here is to remind the reader that all that's here is dust.

You often read the words he left, or she, left "this life" on thus on such a date, and what's implied is to go to another life or left this world. So, this emphasis on the contrast between the mortal remains in this vain and transient world and the eternal world, that's what the person who chose this verse — and paid to have it carved, by the way, a very nice monument — that's what they wanted the reader to contemplate.

So, what was it that originally brought you to a place to want to actually write the book?

As far as I can reconstruct, when I was a kid, my mother needed occasionally to get the kids out of the house and my father would take us on drives around northern Berkshire County. And he liked the old burial grounds. He was a bit of a history buff. So for him it was the old family names, maybe the professions, a little indication of status by size of stone.

I was always a reader, so I would squat down and read the poems. And I guess it stuck with me ever since.

"In Memory of Mrs Ann Stewart," a gravestone from Chandler Hill Cemetery in Colrain, Massachusetts.
John Hanson
"In Memory of Mrs Ann Stewart," a gravestone from Chandler Hill Cemetery in Colrain, Massachusetts.

In Colrain, there is a wonderful stone from 1802 — so not late, but not new-new. And it has the, what I call the "classic," the fundamental verse of:

"As I am now
So you must be
Prepare for death
And follow me"

…which you see over and over. In this case, it's for the wife. And the first line says, "John, when you pass by" — it's personalized to the husband!

And we need to think very hard about the worldview in which that got created. I believe she meant that for his good, as a recurring ... reminder, every time you come and visit my grave ... remember to look after your soul.

She's doing him a favor. And he must have taken it in that vein, because of course, she wasn't there to carve it. He must have received this request and fulfilled her commission. And I think that those few lines in stone suggest a great deal about the religious and the personal relationship between those two people in long-ago Colrain.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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