September 03, 2018

Death's Head, Cherubs and Urns: Gravestone Art in Bradford Burial Ground

This past Saturday was cool and pleasant, and you could sense that fall is on the way. So why not get into the autumnal mood and visit a historic old cemetery? We decided to visit Bradford Burial Ground in Bradford, Massachusetts.

In 1665 settler John Heseltine gave land to the town of Bradford to be used for a church and a cemetery. The church is long gone, but the cemetery still remains and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The oldest gravestone is from 1689, but it is believed that there are older burials in the cemetery along with multiple unmarked graves. The Burial Ground is sometimes called the Ancient Burial Ground, which is kind of a nice name.

Walking through the cemetery we noticed the three major motifs you see on old gravestones in Massachusetts: death's heads, cherubs, and willows and urns. Death's heads are the earliest motif of the three, appearing first in the 1600s. Cherubs appeared by the mid-1700s, while the willow-and-urn motif became popular later in that century. Some historians have argued that the evolution of New England funerary motifs arose from changes in New Englanders' religious views, with the death's head representing the grim Puritan world-view, the cherub a more humanistic approach to religion, and the willow-and-urn a more intellectual one. Others have claimed this is not true and that the motifs just changed with the fashions of the time. Specific motifs lasted longer in some towns than others due to the influence of local stone carvers, and there is quite often chronological overlap between the motifs in the same cemetery. 


The Bradford Burial Ground has a nice assortment of stones engraved with death's heads. There's something morbid but also charming about these stones. Maybe because this motif is frequently used to illustrate books and on Halloween decor I've just gotten used to it. It also is one of those quintessentially New England things, like clam chowder made with cream or old white wooden churches. 

This stone is beautiful and very well-preserved. 

The flowers carved on the side borders contrast with the winged skull. 

This death's head is more abstract than the others and its wings are replaced with flowers.  The stone also has what looks like a typo: "Hear lyes buried...", but spelling was less circumscribed in the early 18th century. 
What looks like another abstract death's head, but without the typo. Is this  even supposed to be a skull or is it a face?


In my mind cherubs are those cute little angels that appear on Valentine's Day cards and in Renaissance paintings. The cherubs in Bradford Burial Ground are definitely not cute. They're actually quite grim. Latin inscriptions (memento mori) appear on the cherub stones, but not on the earlier death's head stones. 

Similar to the cherubs are these carvings, which are sometimes called "portraits." They aren't supposed to actually look like the person buried under them, but are symbolic representations of a human. Like the cherubs they are somewhat grim and have the Latin "memento mori" under them. 


These stones are less morbid and grim than the earlier stones. They are more melancholy. The willow and urn were symbols of mourning from the ancient Mediterranean and appeared in New England as part of the Classical revival in art and architecture. 

A more ornate carving adorns this stone. 

Although they are more gracious, some of the willow-and-urn stones are inscribed with dire warnings to the living. For example, one stone has this carved on it;

Think blooming youth when this you see
Tho young yet you may die like me
Like you a rosy youth was I
Yet in my youth was called to die

Another stone tells us this:

Think, friends, when you these lines have read
How soon we're numbered with the dead
Our years are few and quickly fly
O friends remember you must die

Consider yourself warned. Carpe diem! 


Not every gravestone fits into one of those three categories (and maybe those portraits are really a fourth category). For example, some are just decorated with a floral motif: 

Others feature just a name but with no decoration at all, not even a death date. Were these the graves of paupers or people whose families couldn't afford more elaborate gravestones?

And this headstone features a finger pointing heavenward, letting us know where the grave's occupant has gone. This is a motif I've seen in a few other cemeteries in this area, but it's not as common as some of the others. 

I hope you had a great summer and are excited for the coming of autumn!


Riverton Witch said...

How fun! and what lovely graves

Peter Muise said...

It's always a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Tom in Portsmouth, NH said...

Fun seems like an odd description of time spent in a cemetery, but it can surely be interesting. I've been exploring graveyards since I was a kid growing up in Hampton, NH. I love the peace and serenity of these places, but always try to be mindful of the solemnity of the space. Every stone represents a life once lived, and I find myself reading the inscriptions and trying to imagine what some of those lives were like.

Thanks for the interesting info about the artwork and the "dire warnings" on the headstones you describe. There's one inscription in Hampton that I remember to this day because it haunted me as a child:

Behold and see as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you must be
Prepare for death and follow me

I still find it creepy!

Peter Muise said...

I agree with you about respecting the solemnity of these places. Thanks for sharing that inscription - very haunting!

Unknown said...

The "abstract" style of gravestone is call the Merrimack Valley style, carved mainly by Richard Leighton and his apprentices (and their apprentices).

Peter Muise said...

Hi Bret! Thanks for that link. Very interesting!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Bret! Thanks for that link. Very interesting!