Memento Stones is a blog dedicated to the art and iconography of gravestone carving. As an artist, designer, autodidact and lifelong taphophile, it is my personal mission to spread the word about inspired memorial art with an emphasis on - but not entirely limited to - regional stone carvings produced prior to the Industrial Revolution. Please read on and enjoy the images. I hope you will find some inspiration!

Saturday, March 27, 2010


I was thinking that I would focus on hourglasses this week-objects representative of the passage of time-then I revisited the Richard Churcher stone in Trinity Churchyard in lower Manhattan on Sunday. This weighty stone, carved to commemorate a five year old boy in 1681, displays text on one side and a high relief carving on the other. Two sided headstones are common in the Pennsylvania German tradition, but I rarely seen in New England and coastal New York. I really like this stone - solid, direct and to the point. It features both a winged hourglass to represent fleeting time and an obvious skull and cross bones death’s head. So I thought I would address both time pieces and death’s heads today since, as with so much memorial iconography of the period, these symbols often find their way into compositions on the same stone.
Some other stones which include both icons are: the 1769 stone erected for Thomas Webb in the Granary Cemetery in Boston. Here a large traditional skull & bones sits atop a tiny hourglass – obviously death has the upper hand! Also, an early, primitive table top* stone in Perth Amboy, New Jersey and my personal favorite from Woodbridge, NJ – an angled skull and bones above an hourglass surrounded by what is likely stylized vegetation, but which is evocative of the flames of Hell!  

 * table top stones are vertical stone slabs set on legs or a box foundation, as opposed to upright headstones.

I also like when individual icons are singled out as design elements as in this stone from the Connecticut Farms burial ground in Union, NJ.

The Death’s Head: Skull & Cross Bones  

The skull and crossed bones is a “memento mori” symbol found on grave markers throughout the world and it appears on colonial gravestones from the earliest days. Later the development of the winged skull version of the death’s head became a dominant design motif and lead to the stunning and diverse imagery of the “soul effigy” (to be discussed in future entries). Here are a few examples from Pomfret, South Windsor and Fairfield, Connecticut and Qunicy, Massachusetts.

Two more from the old Dutch burial ground, relocated to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY and a damaged stone with sun from Trinity Churchyard, NYC. I like the way, the "eyelashes" mimic the sun's rays.

An early slate stone in The King’s Chapel burial ground in Boston features a tympanum design with skull, crossed bones and either feathers or what are known as darts of death. They cross behind the skull in an elegant variation of a winged death’s head. The Elizabeth Tillson stone from Plymouth, MA is a later and much more stylized soul effigy. The crossed bones are still present above an abstracted skull with a variant of a period wig or hairstyle and graceful wings which appear to sprout from the ears of the effigy.  

The following are some examples of winged death’s heads in combination with hourglasses from: Hampton, New Hampshire, Quincy, MA and Whitehall cemetery, Mystic, CT.

The Hourglass 

A familiar memento mori icon and element found in Dutch Vanitas still life paintings, the hourglass is the quintessential image of the passage of time. Out lives are like sands through the hourglass. The addition of wings on period gravestones emphasizes flight – as in “time flies”.

This is the beautiful Paul Simons stone, circa 1696 from the Granary cemetery, Boston. The time piece takes flight above the mortal bones flanked by stylized vegetation. 

A small winged hourglass graces a footstone in East Hartford, CT. Many colonial era gravesites were marked by a large headstone and accompanying smaller footstone to create a configuration somewhat like a bed. 

The Robert and Rebecha Montgomery stone from East Derry, NH depicts two soul effigies. In between them, mounted on a pedestal sits a winged hourglass topped by a bird, above that the words, “our glass is run”- a plethora of mortality symbolism.  

My last two examples this week are late eighteenth century brown sandstone markers from north central Connecticut. Toward the end of the colonial period a"formulization" of design was taking place among stone carvers. As with any formulaic work, the end result can feel either elegant or uninspired, depending on the piece or your point of view. In one carving the wings are transformed into a swirling decorative element while in the other they are completely supplanted by graphic diamond patterns.


Saturday, March 20, 2010


Most people, if they think of early American gravestones at all, picture the winged grinning skull or death’s head. Today I thought I’d present some of the many other mortality symbols which grace headstones of the period. Some are complex compositions with multiple elements illustrating the struggle between life and death while others attract the passerby with the their stark, simplistic symbolism 

Some early slate stones in the city of Boston depict a winged figure holding an hourglass (fleeting time) and a skeletal figure snuffing out the candle of life. In at least one image the skeleton wields a scythe ready to cut down the mortal and bring on death. In another the skeleton clings to the vine of life -  which continues down the sides of the stone creating decorative floral borders -  while brandishing it’s candle snuffer.

The Stevens family of Newport, Rhode Island produced a carving dynasty lasting several generations and their stones can be found up and down the east coast of the United States. A visit to the tremendous burial ground in Newport yields many examples of a Stevens design composed of winged effigy, scythe and hourglass. 

Coffins figure in colonial era designs from very early on. A circa 1700 stone in Malden , Massachusetts in topped by a winged death’s head which hovers above an hourglass flanked by impish coffin bearing figures. Each coffin is topped with crossed bones and flanked by Latin phrases: “Memento Mori” –remember death and “Fugit Hora” – the hour is fleeting (or time flies). Several similar examples of the carvers art can be found in eastern Massachusetts cities and towns such as Boston, Cambridge, Wakefield and Charlestown.


I found a wonderful stone in a graveyard in North Deerfield, MA which packs several mortality symbols. A winged heart flies away above a soul effigy (I plan to discuss soul effigies in detail in future entries) or “proto-angel”. Beneath the effigy lies a figure in a coffin and a broken skeleton, cut down by a scythe.   

A stone in the burial ground at Mansfield Center, Connecticut depicts the corpse in it’s coffin surrounding by flowering vines.


Some stones were erected in honor of more than one individual, a mother and child, or several members of the same family. These two are from Deerfield, MA and Franklin, CT.

I’m personally fond of the later eighteenth century primitive, folk art carving found in and around Derry, New Hampshire, including this stone for 5 individuals, each with their own pine box.


In Connecticut, a brown sandstone marker places the coffin beneath a tree (of life?) apparently about to be felled by an axe. 

In my next post I will be sharing some images of winged hourglasses and other time pieces-please check back! 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Selections from my Collection:

Throughout the 20th century interest in early American gravestones gained in popularity and a few individuals stand out as pioneers in documentation and research on the subject. In 1927 Harriett Merrifield Forbes published her groundbreaking study and collection of photographs, Gravsetones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them. I was fortunate enough to obtain a first edition in it's original slip case.

From the 1950's-1970's gravestone rubbing became a popular craft hobby. Recently preservationists have discouraged the practice because of potential damage to fragile stones. I believe the Association for Gravestone Studies (see link at right) still offers seminars in correct rubbing technique at their annual conference. At mid-century however, the team of Ann Parker and Avon Neal created a large collection of rubbings which were then reproduced as lithographic prints. Some of their prints are archived at the Smithsonian Institution. A limited edition numbered series was sold through American Heritage magazine in the 70's. Thanks to  eBay I acquired this image of a circa 1760 carving from Rutland, Ma., signed and numbered 100/250.

The team of Daniel and Jesse Lie Farber used black and white photography to document thousand of stones from the period, many of which have since become damaged or disappeared altogether. I purchased an original Farber print, dated 1959, of the well known Susannah Jayne stone from Marblehead, MA. The Jayne stone is known to scholars because of it's complex composition of death imagery including garlanded skeleton with scythe, uroboros (snake swallowing it's tail), bats, angels and images of the sun and moon. Unfortunately, this unique example of the carvers art has been a specific target of vandalism. My own photo taken 40 years later, illustrates the damage. 

Several years ago I purchased a large collection of notebooks, photographs and negatives from the estate of a gravestone enthusiast from upstate New York. Dr. Harvey Blanchet, spent many years photographing and printing black and white images from various journeys around the northeast and from time to time I plan to share some of his photos as well as my own. These are some examples of more primitive carving from Massachusetts and New Hampshire. 


This is a space to celebrate the tradition of memorial stone carving.

Historic funerary practice has included rituals from exposure to cremation to interment in sarcaphogi and massive monuments on the scale of the ancient Egyptian pyramids. People create ephemeral wooden gravemarkers, place objects as offerings on individual tombs and, increasingly in our contemporary culture, erect roadside monuments to victims of violent accidental death.

The need to make sense of what becomes of us once this life is extinguished is among the oldest of human desires. It is arguably the source of all religious practice and correspondingly among the most ancient of subjects to be addressed by artists and artisans. It is still with us today, albeit pushed to the margins like so much of the rest of our response to death and dying in contemporary, post industrial society. In periods of fear of and respect for death as a natural part of the life cycle, memorial art blossoms and thrives. All art is a reflection of the culture which creates it…….but that’s a whole other road to go down…..

As a child I grew up in a small New England town with a burial ground dating back to the 1630’s. It affected me profoundly. At the age of 4 I began  attending a nursery school run by the local Congregationalist church. The playground backed up to the cemetery and I spent a lot of time peering over the chain link fence at those mysterious winged faces from the past. 
Throughout my life that old graveyard has been one of my favorite places to return to, walk in, to think and just to be – alone with my thoughts, with nature and with the spirits of the past.

As an adult I practice art and design more or less professionally and live in a cabinet of curiosities with collections of objects ranging from seashells, to tramp art, to old vinyl lps and books about death and dying. I’m sort of a total amateur archivist.

For more than a decade now one of my greatest passions has been collecting photographic images from 100’s of 17th and 18th century period graveyards, mostly in New England, but extending as far south as the Carolinas.  It’s an addiction (I definitely have an addictive personality-ask anyone who knows me!). My plan is to eventually publish a book with a selection of some of the more interesting images in the hopes of adding my work to the list of works created by other taphophiles and lovers of memorial art.

I plan to share a portion of that work here in order to create a resource for people already interested in the subject and as a means of introduction for those to whom this may be new. Spending time among the dead can be a very effective way to position oneself within the greater scheme of things…..but oops, off on another tangent…..

……back to the stones….To start with I will be sharing other people’s work. Over the years I have added books, photographs and works of art to my collection, objects produced by gravestone enthusiasts who have gone before me. It’s a nice collection and perhaps some local museum or historical society may be interested in exhibiting some of it. I have previously helped create the exhibition Saving Face at the Wethersfield Historical Society in Wethersfield, CT-an event to help raise awareness and funds for FACES, an organization dedicated to preservation and restoration of Wetherfield’s historic stones. 

Check out my next entry for examples of objects from my collection...