Skulls in Brookline

July 28th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

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.

Walnut Street hourglassBefore 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.

Three death’s head styles three death’s head styles
Young Gardner Typical late 17th and early 18th century death’s head, 1721
1721 classic death’s head wsmarygardner.jpg
Infant son’s stone Child’s version, 1723
1727 traditional skull with large eye holes Cap’n  Aspinwall
Seaver 1741 1741, end of the iconography era, with bones
1752, rounder, less stark image McLaine stone
wssgoddard.jpg 1755, shortly before the Goddard family stones began to move to more humanized images.
1768, Seuer stone showed stylized eyes and a mouth without lips instead of teeth. wsseuer.jpg
wssonsgoddard.jpg 1764,a toddler Goddard showed a rounder, but adult face instead of a death’s head.
The same carver produced a series of Goddard variations. Here 26-year-old Sarah’s stone from 1780. wsgoddard.jpg
wshgoddard.jpg Six years later, her sister Hannah (27) received a very similar image, with more elaborate borders.
In contrast, by 1794, a much friendlier, rounder image appeared on the stone of the 51-year-old Hannah Dana. wsdana.jpg
wsagoddard.jpg Also in 1794, the stone of 21-year-old Abijah Goddard shows the transition in the family previously committee to stern images. This is well on the way from a skull to a more cherubic image.
Transitional images include the Whites. Here from 1780, Moses’ stone added both the human face and obvious hair. wsmwhite2.jpg
wswhite.jpg Similarly, from the next year, the stone of his wife Rachel had a feminized version.
A little earlier, 1775, some of the later softer elements appeared on the Amos Wadsworth stone. Note the lips are stylized and minimal. The rough eyes are cartoon-like. wswadsworth.jpg
wsgriggs.jpg The humanization trends included hair, which gradually became fuller and appeared combed. The 1782 Griggs’ stone is early in this process. There’s not too much detail, but it spares the shocked look of the new eye styles.
By the 19th Century, instead of the grimness of death, the image of a willow as a symbol eternal life began to appear. An early example is on an Estabrook stone. wsestabrook.jpg
wswillow.jpg This quickly developed into more detailed and elaborate willows. This remains a common theme in New England and elsewhere.
A foreshadowing image is the 1815 Mary Allford one. It came before the fancy and more realistic willows. However, note the urn representing the body and the simplified leaves in an unnatural but esthetically pleasing arch. wsallford.jpg
wsbuckley.jpg In contrast to most stones with carved images in Walnut Street, the new style is well represented by the 1852 Charlotte Buckley stone. It has a floral motif but no overt symbolism of mortality.Various plants and flowers have their connotations, but tend to be more subtle.
My favorite in this graveyard is Mary Boylston’s 1722 stone. It is in contrast to the other stones and is an exception to the slow imagery transitions. The carver seemed to try to reflect a strong personality and represent her in much more of a portrait style than others. This is the more remarkable for its period. Mary may have been a merry soul. wsmboylston.jpg

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.


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