March 26, 2022

The Grave of Susanna Jayne: Bats, Angels and the Grim Reaper

Marblehead is one of the prettiest towns in Massachusetts, with an amazing and historic downtown, dramatic ocean views, and streets full of Colonial-era homes. Lots of people visit it for these reasons, but this past weekend we went for a different one: to see the grave of Susanna Jayne.

Like so many coastal New England towns, Marblehead is quite old. It was founded in 1635 as a fishing village by English colonists, and its first cemetery, Old Burial Hill, was established three years later. Old Burial Hill is located on a rocky outcrop overlooking the town center and the harbor. This was also the site of Marblehead's first meeting house (the Puritan term for a church). The meeting house is long gone, but the cemetery remains. 

We were lucky enough to visit on a rainy, foggy day. Our stroll through Old Burial Hill was really atmospheric due to the mist and wet weather, which also kept a lot of people indoors. We we had the place to ourselves. This was my first time visiting Old Burial Hill, and it's already one of my favorite cemeteries. 

Old Burial Hill was one of the locations for the movie Hocus Pocus, which draws some tourists. Nearly 600 Revolutionary War veterans are buried there, which is another draw, but we had come particularly to see the grave of Susanna Jayne. The wife of Peter Jayne, a local schoolmaster, Susanna died in August of 1776. Her epitaph reads:

Deposited Beneath this Stone the Mortal Part of Mrs. Susanna Jayne, the amiable Wife of Mr. Peter Jayne, who lived Beloved and Died Universally Lamented, on August 8th, 1776, in the 45th Year of her Age.

Many of the gravestones I visit have some legend associated with them, but there isn't a legend attached to Susanna Jayne's grave. It's just an incredibly beautiful headstone with lots of symbolism that, to the modern eye, is very gothic. 

Susanna Jayne's headstone is on the right. It's recently been embedded 
in stone to preserve it. 

The headstone was carved by Henry Christian Geyer (1727 - 1785), a Boston artisan who made many other Massachusetts gravestones. Some of Geyer's work follows standard styles popular at the time, while others, like Susanna Jayne's gravestone, are quite creative.  

The centerpiece of Jayne's headstone is this carving of the Grim Reaper, portrayed as a skeleton holding a scythe. The skeleton is crowned with laurel wreaths, and holds the sun in one hand and the moon in the other. (Sadly, the moon has been damaged.) Overall, the message is one of Death triumphant and the passage of time. 

The Grim Reaper is encircled by snake biting its own tail. This image, known as the ouroboros, is a symbol that dates back to the ancient Egyptians and was found on the wall of King Tut's tomb. It's had many meanings over the centuries, but most commonly represents eternity and the cycles of time. More time symbolism appears at the top of Susanna Jayne's headstone, where Geyer carved an hourglass framed by two bones. Time passes, and Death takes us all.

However, the universe is not purely mechanistic and grim. There's a moral aspect, symbolized by the angels and bats that hover around the corners. Good and evil play a role in the eternal drama as well. 

Modern gravestones are quite subdued these days, and very plain. I miss the artistry and symbolism of the older headstones. Susanna Jayne's gravestone is a work of art, and was actually photographed by the well-known artist Ansel Adams. If you'd like to see some beautiful New England art, I'd recommend taking a trip to Old Burial Hill.

You can read more about Susanna Jayne's gravestone here. More details about Henry Christian Geyer can be found here.

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