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 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!!

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