The science of archeology appears to demonstrate remarkable insights into the ways of cultural development by analyzing the simplest artifacts. For understanding the cultural changes in the colonial New England, a curious detective work can be carried out upon gravestones. Reflecting the change in the views of death both in their form and contents, gravestones bear valuable and trustworthy information about the cultural, the religious, and the social perspectives of the time.
The view of death in the Puritan community of New England changed dramatically throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The first Puritan settlers faced hunger and epidemics that took lives of thousands of adults and children. In view of severe hardships the Puritan community envisaged death as a terrifying and grave event that would send most of people to the pits of hell (Ray, 2010). Death was feared of and considered as God’s punishments for one’s sins that came inevitably without any hope of salvation (Mintz, 2003).
Eventually, with the onset of the Great Awakening in 1720s, the Puritans altered their views of death and started treating it as a reunion with God and one’s ancestors secured by life of deep piety (Mintz, 2003). Several decades later, after the American Revolution and the archeological discoveries at Pompeii, death appeared as nothing more than a temporary separation with one’s nearest and dearest (Mintz, 2003).
The abovementioned changes in the views of religion and death was directly reflected in the design of gravestones. Until the early eighteenth century, echoing the bleak prospects on the afterlife shared by the early Puritans, the gravestones featured nothing else but a winged death skull engraved on them. For the Puritans who disapproved of any graphic depiction of religious ideas, the death skull was a most neutral reminder of mortality, emphasizing the frailty of human beings and the brevity of life (Deetz & Dethlefsen, 1967).
The epitaphs on the bottoms of the gravestones laid stress on the Calvinistic ideals of hard work and exemplary behaviour. During the Great Awakening, more liberal views set in among the Protestants, and they started to emphasize the ideas of resurrection and salvation both in the epitaphs and in the design of the gravestone.
The inscriptions started to feature the words “Here lies the body of…” in order to demonstrate that only the perishable flesh was buried and the immortal soul got its reward in paradise; and the dreary death head was replaced by a carving of winged cherub (Deetz & Dethlefsen, 1967).
The late eighteenth century witnessed the revival of interest in Greek art, and such republican symbols as urns and willows appeared on the gravestones which then acquired the square shoulders of a classical outline, as compared to the round-shouldered outline featured a century before (Deetz & Dethlefsen, 1967).
The investigation into grave art reveals a number of issues about the religious and social changes in the Puritan society of New England. On the one hand, the design of cherubs appears mostly on the graves of high status individuals. This means that innovation in gravestone design was introduced through the cosmopolitan social stratum.
On the other hand, the ease with which the new design spread in the more rural areas signifies the low resistance to change in those regions that demonstrated readiness to accept the modifications of orthodox Puritanism. In addition, certain modifications in gravestone design are rare in children’s burials, which implies the conservative approach to children entombment.
Through watching the change in gravestone design, archeologists can arrive at a number of conclusions about the Puritan society of New England. The cultural change in religion, shifting the emphasis from mortality to immortality, and the social nature of design choice are all indicated through gravestone design.
Deetz, J., & Dethlefsen, E. S. (1967). Death’s head, cherub, urn and willow [Electronic version]. Natural History, 76(3) 1967, 29–37. Retrieved from http://www.histarch.uiuc.edu/plymouth/deathshead.html
Mintz, S. (2003). Death in early America. In Digital History. Retrieved from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/usdeath.cfm
Ray, M. (2010, October 12). Digital stories about American history [The Puritans]. Digital History. Video episode retrieved from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/digital_stories.cfm