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3. Gravestone Carving

In early Boston when someone died, their family or friends indicated their burial site with a marker for remembrance. Often the deceased had already ordered their gravestone before their death. Gravestones were carved by masons, stonecutters, painters, and other craftsmen with artistic skills. As you walk through the burying ground you can see particular styles that indicate the same carver at work. Only a few carvers signed their work with their initials.

The first and cheapest grave markers were made of wood, which did not survive in the damp seaside climate of New England. In the 17th century, early stone markers had simply initials and dates. The gravestone of Thomas Plats (d. 1685), a Boston butcher, is made of red stone and has only letters and numbers, no carved symbols. Soon carvers started engraving symbols and messages on the stones:

“Death’s head,” a non-religious symbol, is a skull often with wings and/or crossed bones. It is the earliest symbol employed in this graveyard. Other decorative motifs accompanying the death’s head were the hourglass (and even a winged hourglass – symbolizing the concept “time flies”), coffins, elaborately carved side panels with florets, finials, foliage, fruit, and imaginary figures. The majority of gravestone carvings in Granary is death’s heads. See the nearby gravestones of Hugh Mackgill (d. 1724) and Paul Revere’s first wife, Sarah (Orne) Revere (d.1773). Ruth (Wiswall) Mountfort Carter’s (1656-1698) is more elaborate, with two standing skeletons carved around its epitaph.

“Winged cherub” or a soul effigy, is characterized by a fleshy face, life-like eyes, and an upwards-turned mouth. Cherubs started appearing in the late 17th century and are common in the 18th century. The gravestones of David Gleason (d. 1768), an infant, and Mary Devens (d. 1778) have winged cherubs.

The “willow and urn” symbols are seen most often after the American Revolution. The willow was an ancient mourning symbol. The urn was an Imperial Roman device used to contain ashes. Usage of these motifs was part of a larger trend toward sentimentality in mourning art. There are very few “willow and urn” motifs at this burying ground. Look for the gravestone of William Claghorn (Sign #8).

Some bereaved relatives commissioned special symbols for gravestones. Lt. Jabez Smith, Jr. (1751-1780) was a young lieutenant of the Marines aboard the Continental ship Trumbull. A replica of the ship is carved into his stone. Other families chose to display a coat of arms, including Peter Faneuil (Sign #7) and Robert and Elizabeth Freake (Sign #5). Prominent politicians and officials are memorialized by monuments such as obelisks, including Benjamin Franklin’s family (Sign #4), John Hancock (Sign #7), and Increase Sumner (Sign #5).

Early English Arrivals

When Jacob Eliot (1632-1693), yeoman and deacon of South Church died, Samuel Sewall wrote: “Tis a sudden and sore blow to the South Church, a loss hardly repaired . . . . He was one of the most serviceable men in Boston . . . . one of the first that was born in Boston.” Eliot’s gravestone is surrounded by those of his wife and children.

Bartholomew Green (1666-1732) was the son of printer Samuel Green, who arrived in 1630. In 1704 Bartholomew started to print the Boston Newsletter, the first American newspaper. The paper remained with the family through his daughter, Deborah (Green) Draper, and grandson, Richard Draper (Sign #4).

The Fighting Armstrongs

Tomb 192 holds the remains of the Armstrong family. In 1776 the patriarch, Colonel John Armstrong (d. 1776), marched to Long Island with his two sons, Captain John Armstrong and Major Samuel Armstrong (1754-1810), where their troops engaged the British Army. Colonel Armstrong was killed on the battle field while his sons were wounded and barely escaped. His grandson, Samuel Turrell Armstrong (1784-1850), was a publisher, banker, and statesman who held a number of political offices, including mayor and acting governor. The inscription was placed by descendant Lieutenant George Washington Armstrong (1792-1866), who served in the War of 1812.
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