Artifact In Memoriam: On Cemeteries and the Memory of Ordinary Lives
Who could not be superstitious, sentimental, and impractical around matters of death?
When my students and I pulled up to the Old Parish Burying Ground, the oldest colonial cemetery in Freeport, Maine, the weather was more fitting for telling ghost stories than for historical fieldwork. The ground was shrouded in fog, the tree branches were dark and spidery against the sky, and the air smelled like dead leaves and chimney smoke. I teach tenth grade humanities, and this trip was part of our local history unit on analyzing primary sources.
My students were armed with clipboards and background information about the study of New England graveyards as well as Freeport’s history, culture, and lore. They’d also learned about Noah Pratt, Jr., a stone carver whose distinctive gravestones from the 1780s could be found throughout the cemetery. I’d spent the past six weeks emphasizing basic historical principles I hoped my students would apply to their note-taking and fieldwork. As they dispersed, I had the impulse to yell—as I always do when they’re tackling a new project—“Remember your training!”
I love old cemeteries. I’m interested in them as objects of study, but for me their magic lies in their creepiness, in their insistent reminder that death is a part of life, in their overgrown greenery and leaning tombstones, in their hauntings, and in their ability to outlast everything—their ability to persist. They’re such impractical uses of space. They and the practices that surround them are some of the few ritualistic traditions to remain an almost universal part of life. Who could not be superstitious, sentimental, and impractical around matters of death? The Old Parish Burying Ground is a fine example of a rural New England cemetery. Its oldest graves are from the 1770s, and its newest are from just a few years ago. The ground is mounded and sloping from years of shifting and resettling earth. The stone walls that mark its borders are probably as old as it is, built without mortar so they’ve survived the brutal freeze and thaw of Maine winters.
Cemeteries are extremely useful in the study of archaeology and history. Gravestone iconography and epitaphs reflect religious, cultural, and aesthetic trends, and are telling indicators of a community’s ideas about death, mortality, and mourning. Although it’s a misconception to think that everyone was given a spot in a cemetery and a headstone, cemeteries provide more information about ordinary people than most historical documents. As primary sources, gravestones haven’t yet been put through the lens of another historian, so my students could practice deciding for themselves what was important, and how to interpret the information. And, I wanted to show my students that with enough curiosity, context, and detective work, they could discover the many secrets that these common, accessible spaces hold.
Cemeteries are ideal for recognizing patterns, since there is so much available data, and factors like time and geographic location are fixed and easily determined. One pattern my students were investigating was the evolution of the images carved on the tops of headstones. They’d read an article on the three symbols that were most common on early Massachusetts gravestones. Each of these symbols had a period of high popularity before falling out of favor, and can be found in almost every New England cemetery that dates back to the eighteenth century. I find these trends fascinating, because they are such clear examples of how symbolism and folk art relate to culture, and can be used to trace the ways in which New England culture changed over time.
The first symbol, which was popular from the earliest colonial settlements through the late 1700s, was the death’s head. This grinning winged skull is probably recognizable to most New Englanders, with its dark round eyes, bared teeth, and sloping, textured wings. It’s undoubtedly the spookiest symbol, and my favorite. It was intended to serve as a reminder of the inevitability of death and the briefness of life, an extension of the medieval memento mori tradition. The epitaphs that accompany death’s heads often communicate a macabre message, the gist of which is: “You, dear reader, will also die. Probably pretty soon.” In the cemetery nearest my apartment in Portland, one such epitaph reads, “Reader, life is uncertain / Today its flowery paths we tread / Tomorrow number’d with the dead.”
In the late 1700s, the death’s head’s popularity started to decline. In its place, the cherub, a child-like angel’s face with wings, became an increasingly common design. The cherub is found on stones from the mid-1750s through the early 1800s. Some historians theorized that this shift coincided with the Great Awakening and a move away from iconophobic Puritanism. But, according to a more recent analysis by archaeologist Adam Heinrich, this trend is related to the rising popularity of the Rococo style, and aesthetic, not religious, shifts. Heinrich suggests the cherub is reminiscent of putti , stylized winged infants featured in Rococo artwork. The cherub was viewed as a more optimistic symbol. Epitaphs highlighted the soul’s ascension to heaven. My students found some of these inscriptions just as morbid as those that accompanied death’s heads, as many include sentiments such as “Here lies, moldering in the dust, the body of . . . ” In fact, this emphasis on the disintegration of the body was uplifting, as it contrasted the fate of the immortal soul.
The next and last symbol to gain widespread popularity was the urn and willow motif. This symbol arrived in New England in the 1790s, especially in intellectual centers such as Cambridge, and by the mid-1800s it dominated graveyards everywhere. It featured a Greek-style urn under the bending branches of a willow tree. It came in on the tide of Neoclassicism’s arrival in America. In New England, Unitarianism and Methodism were on the rise and there was a movement towards celebrating the virtues of rational thought. The writing on these stones emphasized remembering the life of the deceased individual, and shifted towards “In memory of” instead of “Here lies.” In the cemetery near my apartment, an urn and willow epitaph reads, “Lo, where this silent marble weeps / A friend, a husband and a father sleeps.” A far cry from decaying bodies and reminders that you too shall die.
Beautiful examples of all three motifs can be found in the Old Parish Burying Ground. My students were instructed to discern whether the symbols they could find matched what they’d learned. Were the time periods consistent? Were the symbols distributed evenly throughout, or were like symbols grouped with like? I was hoping they’d notice that new trends in gravestone designs arrived late to this rural cemetery, trickling up from urban centers. And, as in most other cemeteries in Maine, the cherub never gained the traction that it had further south.
Just as important as noting the ways this cemetery conformed to trends was noting the anomalies. During the uncertain years of the cherub’s weak reign in Maine and before the urn and willow swept across the land, Noah Pratt, Jr. moved to town and filled the local cemeteries with his unique designs. As soon as I was confident that my students’ most pressing questions had been answered, I made a beeline to a small square area in the cemetery filled with high-shouldered slate stones, where Noah Pratt had left his mark.
Noah Jr. was from a family of gravestone carvers. His father, grandfather, and two of his brothers were carvers working in Massachusetts, and one of his sons would eventually enter the family business. The Pratts shared a unique and progressive style. Instead of carving skulls or angels, they carved realistic portraits of faces. These faces were simple, with only a few variations to mark the features of the deceased. Notably, all the Pratts carved the eyes in a distinctive way, which helps to identify their work. The Pratt eyes are almond-shaped and upturned at the edges, so they look as if they’re wearing cat-eye makeup. Although a few carvers from cities were also carving portraits, the realistic portrait design was rarely seen in rural areas until well into the 1800s. Noah Jr.’s designs were unusual, and even without a signature it’s not difficult to pick out his handiwork.
In preparation for the trip, I’d shown my students images of documents from Noah Pratt’s life: a rare “ sample stone ” he used to show prospective clients examples of his lettering and portraits; a petition he signed asking the town for a new road, which was indeed built and that we drove on frequently; a record of a town meeting in which he was deemed an official “hog reeve” (a constable responsible for policing damage done by free-roaming hogs); the page from the 1790 Freeport census with his signature. We’d discussed his family’s legacy, and I’d asked my students to consider what connotations a realistic portrait has. I told them to look for context clues in the graveyard.
I know much more about Noah Pratt, Jr. than I shared with my students. I know he was born in Abington, Massachusetts on July 20, 1758. I know he married Alice Jenkins in November of 1780 before moving to Maine the following year. I know how many acres he bought when he moved to town (fifty), and that he bought the land with a partner. I know he sold his share of the land to this same partner when he returned to Massachusetts in 1791 to take over his father’s business. I know that he had at least eight children who outlived him. I know these things because I discovered an excellent article on the Pratt family stone carvers , and from an extensive library search of digitized Maine records. I’ve considered, for longer than I care to admit, whether it’s meaningful that he listed his profession as “yeomen” when he bought his land in Maine, and as “stonecutter” when he sold the land ten years later, even though, at both times, he was a farmer and a stonecutter. Did this signify a change in identity, in confidence, or in how he conceived of himself and his true work? Did it reflect how the town would have seen him, as he slowly built a reputation as a skilled carver? I wonder.
I also wonder if he ever thought, dreamily, of the astounding longevity of his work. He must have known that even the low-quality local slate he used would withstand the wear of time and weather for many generations after his death. Did he think, with pride, that centuries later people would observe his craft and admire the uniqueness of his style or the curve of his lines? I find it hard to imagine that someone who spent his life so intimately involved with gravestones could avoid dwelling on our desire to be remembered and to mark our short lives with something semi-permanent. I hope he marveled at how much of his work he was leaving behind. I hope he at least occasionally allowed himself to romanticize his craft. But I’m revealing more about my cultural inheritance than his. Gravestone inscriptions now commonly focus on two central ideas: memory and love.
That day in the cemetery, I didn’t try to explain to my students my fascination with Noah Pratt, Jr.’s life, or my enchantment with cemeteries. I don’t expect my students to be delighted by the same things that I am. Certainly, not all my students felt inspired by the cemetery visit. A few of them were complaining about their cold hands, or were taking notes only dutifully. Their sense of wonder was stirred by different things: the number of small creatures in a tide pool, the diary of an eighteenth-century schoolteacher, the intimacy of their friendships with one another. But there, in that cemetery, my sense of wonder was lit like a match. In cemeteries, I am reminded of the shimmering joy behind the practical and analytical aspects of history: that something ancient has, against all odds, endured.
Even the relatively ordinary has remained, has been marked and commemorated. Someone was loved (and had a family that could afford a carved gravestone) and here is the proof. Even as a history teacher, even with all the persistent questions I still want answers to, I will never stop being amazed that we can know so much about everything that came before us.
But my fixation on Noah Pratt, Jr.—the yeomen, hog reeve, father, husband, stonecutter, and petitioner of roads—is harder to explain. He was a relatively ordinary man. He and I have so little to connect us, beyond the fact that I often drive on the same roads he rode and walked on. Even if he imagined that his work would be admired by passersby for generations, he couldn’t have imagined that a group of students would kneel in front of his stones and take notes, would see a photocopied page of the census book he signed, or would consider why he made the artistic choices that he did. Surely, he’d be surprised that someone, over two hundred years after his death, has taught her students about him, has become preoccupied with gathering all the documents that bear his name, has guessed at his intentions and stylistic influences, has written this essay.
Perhaps this essay is a fitting memorial for a man who memorialized so many people, if only so I can say: Here lies the remaining evidence of Noah Pratt, Jr.’s life, after his body has long since mouldered into dust. And, while I’m at it, let me remind you, my dearest reader, that the worms await you, too.