Oh sorry, that title's a really bad pun.
I came across the Farber Gravestone Collection, a photographic resource of 13,500 images documenting the carving on old gravestones and my heart did a leap. Oh so long ago I made a little book about gravestone carving for my senior project. It was mainly a graphic design exercise on the changing iconography of gravestones, but the text came out of a paper I wrote for a history class. What a help this collection would have been! The photos existed (most images the Farbers, a husband and wife team, took were from the 1970s and 80s) but they were on a shelf somewhere in the American Antiquarian Society and without the power of the internets, I was Farberless.
I knew that formally, Colonial graves had headstones and footstones, like a bed for the occupants' everlasting repose. This idea also lent the markers their distinctive headboard shape. What I learned was that they typically had carving on the outer sides of the stones, so the visitor-reader would not tread on the grave. Also, graves were positioned with occupants' feet to the East, so that come Judgment they would stand to face the rising sun.
Skulls, Death's heads, cherubs, hourglasses-- the symbols were often copied directly from engravings that came over from England. These were then copied again and again by dedicated stonemasons or itinerant carvers, mostly without the benefit of reference to the original design. Changed, embellished, streamlined and mutated by skilled intent or by lesser hands, the imagery is at once repetitive and wildly divergent. Truly bizarre figures emerge. Wings become decorative swirls, collars, mustaches. Leering Death's heads become benign cyphers, cherubs morph into strange stupefied-looking sexless trophy heads. Once the Puritan ethic loosens its grip, attempts at portraiture get added into the mix and things got really interesting. When the fashion for Neo-classicism trickled down to the gravemarker, winged messengers were supplanted by urns, willows, swags and often, a disembodied hand pointing skyward.
The inscriptions, too, can be fascinating in all their mangled phonetics and "ye Olde"-iness. Sometimes creepily elliptical ("RB. di'd 1712"), or filled with florid religious boilerplate, they can sometimes stop your heart with personal, real, specificity. At top, little Aaron Bowers, aged 2 years 10 months, was "instantly kill'd by a stack of boards" on September 12, 1791. And there he is, splayed out behind two planks.
My Trembling Heart with Grief overflows,
While I Record the death of Those;
Who died by Thunder Sent from Heaven,
In Seventeen hundred and Seventy Seven
struck by lightening