The earliest gravestones you can find are from the 17th century, when this area was a hotbed of orthodox Puritanism. Although the Puritans apparently weren't as grim as many people think (they did invent Thanksgiving, after all!), their religious outlook was still pretty gloomy. Gravestones from this era are decorated with skulls, usually winged.
|Grave of Edward Dean, 1716, Charter Street Burying Ground, Salem|
The Puritans were staunch Christians, but their religious beliefs didn't provide a lot of hope for the individual. Only God knew who would be admitted to Heaven, and He didn't tell anyone. Even the most devout people went through life fearing not only death, but that they would be sent to Hell by God. I've read somewhere that young Puritan children were often sent to look at open graves and watch burials so they could meditate on their own mortality and innate sinfulness.
The fears created by Puritan religious beliefs were probably compounded by how unstable the New England settlements were in the 17th century. Indian attacks, war with the French, piracy, outbreaks of disease, and the occasional witch hunt all made the world feel threatening. No wonder they carved skulls on their tombstones.
|Grave of Sarah Gardner, 1791, Charter Steet Burying Ground, Salem|
|Grave of Captain Clifford Crowninshield, 1809, Charter Street Burying Ground, Salem|
Gravestones decorated with willows and urns slowly replaced the cherubs in the 19th century. The urn-and-willow motif apparently began in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was a center for intellectual trends like the Greek revival, which sought a return to classical forms in art and architecture. Also spreading across New England from Harvard University was Unitarianism, which brought a more intellectual approach to the old Puritan congregations. Both skulls and cherubs were too visceral for this new, more philosophical strand of Christianity. In the 19th century New England was the intellectual and financial center of the United States, and I think the new peace and prosperity are probably reflected in this soothing grave art as well.
If you want to read more about this, you should check out "Death's Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow," a famous article printed in 1967 in Natural History. The authors lay it all out in much greater detail than I did. Have fun exploring your local graveyard!