Where I was born in Upstate New York, cemeteries are a ubiquitous site. They are found in every town, at the edges of every city, and along many country roads. They vary from large cemeteries filled with family plots, extravagant mausolea, surrounded with stone walls, to smaller and more simple single family plots whose boundaries has long since surrendered to time and rust. I find it odd when I don’t see a cemetery when on a drive. What makes cemeteries so fascinating, is the wide range of grave markers, plot markers, and other monuments across the landscape. Markers and monuments are a window into the personalities, relationships and lives of the deceased and the mourning community. While the names and dates can be revealing, for making connections to public registers or local history, it is all the non-essential choices that people make when choosing a stone or monument for themselves or their loved ones that can be so revealing.
An epitaph is a short text that honors the deceased and is inscribed on their grave marker. Some are determined before death by the individual whom it honors, and others are chosen by those responsible for burial. In the past, epitaphs were often used as brief records of the individual’s life and may include details on their career, their position in the family such as “beloved mother”, or include notable acts such as an invention. In the United States, epitaphs vary in different periods according to style, public values, and personal choices changes. During the Colonial Era, there was an emphasis on hard work and piety, with markers reading ‘Here lies…”. From the Revolutionary and Civil War eras there is increased religious sentiment and a focus on heaven, and a shift to statements of “Here lies the mortal remains of…”. In the Victorian Era, epitaphs became more intellectual, and focused on the importance of memory and peace of the deceased, with a change to “In memory of…” on the stone. In today’s modern era, epitaphs have declined but not fully disappeared. Some epitaphs are serious, and warn onlookers about their own mortality. Others are more humorous, for example Mel Blanc’s marker states “That’s All Folks”, harkening back to his career as numerous voices in Looney Toons (see other humorous grave stones here).
Decorations are also an important part of any marker. Many historic grave markers have some type of elaboration around the epitaph. The most popular of these in early US history are the death’s head, the cherub and the willow. Deetz and Dethlefsen (1967) note that the earliest is the death’s head, correlating with the emphasis in life on hard work, piety and mortality, as well as correlating with the Puritan period focus on the uncertainty of life and death. The death’s head begins as an elaborate grinning skull flanked by wings, but slowly over time becomes more simple. During the 18th century, the favored decoration becomes a cherub. This decoration popularity is attributed to the decline in Puritanism and the Great Awakening. It correlates with the epitaph focus on heaven and a more beneficent interpretation of the afterlife. This too goes out of fashion, and is replaced by images of willows and urns in the early 19th century. This correlates with a change in epitaph to the focus on peace and memory, and a switch to more sentimental markers. All of this is argued by Deetz and Dethlefsen (1967) to correlate with broader changes in religion.
However, a new article by Heinrich (2013) challenges the interpretation that these 17th through 19th century decorations are only attributable to religious connotations. Focusing on the rise and decline of the cherub decorations, Heinrich (2013) argues that the use of the cherub’s head is more related to economy and fashion than religious change. He notes that in the past half century, there have been numerous studies that have shown no correlation between religion and decorations on grave markers- rather they tend to occur throughout the country at a similar pace in rise and decline that is more related to fashion. The late 17th and early 18th period marked the rise of Rococo design and fashion. There was a focus on naturalism, elegance, lightness, and the use of classical figures such as cherubs and winged infants. Rococo design in the US became popular in the 18th century among the wealthier individuals. Its popularity is seen throughout ceramics and furniture design, artwork, on paper media, so it isn’t surprising to see it used on grave markers. As the middle class became more wealthy in the mid-18th century, cheaper designs of the cherub, shallower and less ornate became popular as a way to mimic the rich. By the end of the century, the design became less common as Neoclassical fashion became more popular.
While grave markers are a personal choice, either by the deceased or the mourning community, the choices are structured by broader social, economic and religious choices. For example, just last year a man’s headstone was banned from a cemetery because it used Nascar imagery, which the associated cemetery’s church found inappropriate. Choices are structured, and because of that, we can use choices in grave imagery and epitaph to better understand people in the past.
Heinrish, A. 2013 Cherubs or Putti? Gravemarkers Demonstrating Conspicuous Consumption and the Rococo Fashion in the Eighteenth Century. Int J Histor Archaeol (2014) 18:37–64
Deetz and Dethlefsen 1967.Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow Natural History 1967, pp. 29-37. http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/deathshead.html