Currently reading : Early American Gravestones
Walking past the Trinity Church Ceremony in Lower Manhattan, I first became enamored with early American gravestones, from the “amateur” to the hauntingly ornate. Luckily for me, the American Antiquarian Society houses a terrific database of photographs of headstones: The Farber Gravestone Collection.
The 2003 introductory essay to collection, penned by the late Jessie Farber, who contributed many photographs, provides a wonderful introduction. By summarizing previous scholarship, Farber provides plausible (although admittedly incomplete) interpretations for many of the symbols and motifs whose morbidity first fascinated me: skulls, hourglasses, scythes, and coffins to the Puritan emphasis on human mortality, and winged faces and angels as parallel motifs to a mid-18th Century emphasis on resurrection rather than mortality. She also transcribes some of the headstones’ macabre verses:
Molly tho pleaâˆ«ant in her day
Was âˆ«udd’nly âˆ«eiz’d and âˆ«ent away
How âˆ«oon âˆ«hes ripe how âˆ«oon âˆ«hes rott’n Sent to her grave & âˆ«oon for gott’n
Mary Fowler, 1792, Milford, Connecticut
The collection is incredible, not only in its documentation of the gravestones, but in its photographic value. Comprising the work of four photographers spanning many decades and professions–Harriette Merrifield Forbes (1856-1951), Ernest Caulfield (1893-1972), Dan Farber (1906-1998) and his wife, Jessie Lie Farber– the collection reveals four distinct approaches. The collection’s photographers both lived and worked during different eras, and they approached their photographs with different backgrounds and motivations: Forbes photographed during the 1920s as part of a stylistic analysis and attribution project, Caulfield, a doctor, photographed in the 50s, discovering the gravestones through his research on 18th century “throat distemper,” and the Farbers were photographers by profession.
Of course, the sheer variety of these stones is mind boggling: from the simplest incised skulls to the full reliefs of modeled reapers, each stone feels both idiosyncratic and fully embedded in a cultural and religious moment, which makes them fascinating to look at.