While I abut the splendid Forest Hills Cemetery (cum art museum/park), I am often unfaithful and walk the lanes of other graveyards as I can. The following images concentrate on details from the Walnut Street Cemetery in Brookline.
I had saved this one to savor, knowing it was the oldest in the town (1717) and likely filled with colonial era gems. Well, it isn’t really, but it is worth the visit. There are few noted corpses. More to my disappointment, it does not have any spectacular or unique iconography (one exception is jolly Mary Boylston).
On the other hand, it contains a fine sampling showing the evolution of the death’s head imagery into cute cherubic carvings. Click on the thumbnails below for larger views.
Disclaimer: I have been attending First Parish in Brookline, but I don’t feel that I have to defend their non-maintenance of this cemetery through 1840.
The first bit of history is that First Parish ran this cemetery until it gave it to Brookline when the church could not or would not keep it up. Unlike garden cemeteries and many private graveyards, this one started before the concept of perpetual care — paying for a sort of maintenance annuity for the graves — was in place here.
There is a preservation plan, but it is long overdue in execution. For remarkably complete details on the history, burial at, and that plan, visit the Walnut Street Cemetery site.
Before looking at the various death’s head images, wander this small graveyard. At the top of its central hill is the deteriorating iron fence of the Cook site. It has a fine example of an hourglass, illustrating the ephemeral nature of life.
The older and less imposing headstones lie almost entirely in the depressed (but not depressing) middle valley. There are a few tombs along the Western rise next to Walnut Street. By far the best art is on the stand alone stones in the valley.
Truth be told, there are many New England cemeteries with fancier examples of the carver’s art. Yet, appreciate this one for what it does have — a full range of a century and one half of development. The early 18th century horrific death’s head with sunken eye holes and forbidding teeth develops into more humanized heads with stylized features. Next comes a softened almost cherubic version for young adults and children and finally an almost realistic portrait style, much more human and human than ghastly.
At the end of the burials here, the stones went more for willows, symbolizing eternal life and even a few with graceful flowers and no overt reminder of mortality.
Exposition and factoids: For reference, I often use Graven Images, Allan I. Ludwig, Wesleyan University Press. Amazon and other online sellers discount it. There a scattered details of graveyard iconography on the net. If you search, include variations, like headstone in your terms. You can find pages like the Yale University one with a list of images appearing on Cape Cod colonial era tombstones.