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, April 17, 2010

Pop Icons, it seems likely that the colonial period soul effigy is derived from a humanoid face lurking in the collective unconscious. All the skulls, angels and aliens fit into this pattern and I have found a few specific soul effigies that made me giggle when I was struck by their resemblance to familiar pop cultural icons.

There is a beautiful white wooden church on a hill in Rockingham, Vermont with a burial ground populated by slate markers with low relief compass carved soul effigies. Occasional rust stains from minerals in the stone add a richness and character to the images. One small mournful effigy looks sadly out through big round eyes, seemingly searching for something - his way home perhaps? It's heart is prominently front and center ready to burst out of it's chest and the wrinkled neck convinced me that the designers of E.T. the Extraterrestrial had seen this effigy and used it as a reference for their creation.

The large burial ground in Northampton, MA is a treasure trove of deep brown sandstone monuments carved in the eighteenth century. Among the winged master works I found the robot from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It sprouts from leaves with a daisy above it's head and I found myself puzzled and wondering if the Frankenstein bolts protruding from the top and sides of it's head were meant to be some kind of stylized eighteenth century wig, or perhaps a radiant symbol such as a crown or nimbus. It could simply be a decorative feature, like the paisleys floating below the image, but regardless I could not get Metropolis robot out of my head.

The markers in historic burial grounds are important works of art produced by people with an intense need to express their spirituality visually. Viewed from a distance of centuries they provoke thought and question in a contemporary viewer. Because they are carved in stone they feel more permanent, less ephemeral than many other artifacts, but it's simply a matter of degree. Stones disintegrate too and I invite readers to explore and view these objects while they are still with us - because there are fewer of them every day.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Loving the Alien......."

There is a stone in Brooklyn, Connecticut for two young children. Their infant souls appear to be encapsulated in an interstellar vehicle. A swirling pinwheel hovers above their heads inside their spaceship. 

Images of aliens in contemporary popular culture reflect human features in an abstracted idealized way, emphasizing large eyes - windows to the soul, while downplaying the other sensory features of nose and mouth. Aliens are invariably bald and hairless, distancing them further from the animal kingdom and projecting an ambition to a state of development more advanced than we mere humans, but they are humanoid nonetheless. 
The alien face is an iconic cross cultural, cross historical image – a simplified and idealized projection of humanness. Alien bodies are scrawnily minimal as if everything that makes us human is contained within the head. 

The Swiss writer Erich Von Daniken created a sensation in the late 1960’s with the publication of his work, Chariots of the Gods. In this and subsequent books Von Daniken outlined his argument for the possibility of extraterrestrial intervention in early human development. His evidence? Rock carvings, paintings, writings and numerous works of art created by societies in various locations throughout the globe and at vastly different points in history.  Petroglyphs from Europe, Australia and America – three dimensional fetishes from Japan, tomb carvings from Mexico, all stood to illustrate his point because all represented humanoid figures with details and accessories resembling twentieth century astronauts.

I once wrote to Von Daniken myself, sending him images from my own collection of early American carvings in order to get his opinion on their potential alien influence. He never wrote me back and I’ve often wondered if he thought I was making fun of him. I wasn’t. Colonial period gravestone carvers tapped into that universal imagery and many soul effigy variations resemble the alien depictions familiar to us today, some two to three hundred years later. Here are some examples of interstellar travelers from early New England….  

Saturday, April 3, 2010


THE SOUL EFFIGY – In Transition:
This is the Elizabeth Tillson headstone from Burial Hill in Plymouth, MA that I used in my discussion of death’s heads last week. It’s a great example of a transitional carving between death’s head and “soul effigy”.

The soul effigy is the epitome of eighteenth century American gravestone carving, an organically developed motif with countless inspired and creative variations. Soul effigies span the entire colonial period beginning as softened variations of death’s heads, reaching a high point as images in their own right before morphing further into beings basically resembling angels by the later decades of the eighteenth century.

Scholars have written extensively on the theological and cultural reasons for the shifting artistic developments. A very simplified explanation is the shift from early “fire and brimstone” Puritan theology to a more wordly, Age of Enlightenment perspective during and after the Revolutionary period. The death’s head is a clear warning to live every moment in anticipation of the moment of death and transition to the afterlife, an eternity of either salvation or damnation. The “angels” are a precursor to Romantic/Victorian morbid sentimentality, but also represent a more optimistic outlook in terms of the hereafter. They are glorified souls, not grim reminders of inevitable mortality.

In between are the effigies…   

Soul Effigies represent the individual at the doubtful moment of transition between this mortal existence and the eternal. Some effigies look optimistic and cheerful, others quite clearly scowl and still others wear a look of confusion or uncertainty. This state may be a reflection of the colonist's uncertainty about not only their eternal fate, but the fate of their mortal existence as well, since the American experiment was by no means assured of success at that time. Many have wings, many do not. They are simple or complex, elegant or primitive, each reflecting the faith and creativity of the artists who carved them and the individuals and communities in which they were created. Variations include effigies with vegetation or “life’s breath” spewing from their mouths, spirals or pinwheel shaped carvings surrounding the faces (I’ll discuss this in a future post), wings, no wings, period wigs, combinations with other symbols or just the simplest of faces. 

Today I am sharing photos of some otherwordly faces that represent a transition between death’s head and soul effigy. They retain skull like characteristics, but begin to take on human features, flesh, eyebrows, hair…and, in my opinion illustrate some of the most intriguing examples of the colonial carvers art.
I was immediately fascinated the first time I saw this stone in the historic burial ground in Concord, MA. An obvious winged skull, it has a mask of flesh covering the top half of it's face. Stones with this unique feature appear to be the gruesome work of just one eastern Massachusetts carver.

In Pepperell, MA there is a carving of what appears to be a sci-fi insect from outer space. On closer inspection the "spider's legs" are downward pointing wings and the antennae sprouting from the head may be something like the life force escaping(?), they lead to swirling pinwheels and the "Memento Mori" text. 

A tradition of compass based designed carved in low relief on a hard greenish slate like stone developed in the area of Plymouth County, MA. They are terrific abstractions of skulls with wings, hair and other chracteristics. I refer readers to the author Peter Bennes for scholarly writing and research on these specific carvers. Here are some rockin' examples from cemeteries in that region!

Next week-more fab effigies of the "alien" variety!!