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Book Review: ‘Carved in Stone,’ Gravestones That Spoke of Life and Death

There’s something bracing about paging through Carved in Stone, the book of photos of New England gravestones by Thomas E. Gilson, with an extended essay on their history and style by William Gilson (University Press of New England). The Gilson brothers were born and raised in Connecticut, and Thomas Gilson, who is the author of The New England Farm, also taught photography in Vermont for 17 years.

As a culture we are skittish about discussing death, and yet we also sentimentalize it with depictions of angels and pearly light and heaven. Not so the women and men of 17th- and 18th-century New England, whose gravestones, with their capering skeletons, teeth-gnashing devils and skulls with staring, moon-shaped eye sockets, spoke to the uncertainty and dread about what lies beyond this mortal coil. They didn’t waste breath on such euphemisms as “passed away” or “gone.”

The early settlers of New England lived in a place and time steeped in death. They visited disease and violence on the American Indian tribes and disease and violence were also visited upon them. They had an abiding, palpable fear of hell and the eternal damnation of their souls. It’s little wonder that so many of their gravestones reflected the anxiety of living in a harsh, unpredictable world.
“O Relentless Death” is the inscription on one gravestone shown in the book, and it feels like a cry of despair.

Yet not all the gravestones are so somber, or the visages on them so grim. For all the Puritans’ stern fulminations against human weakness and sin there was hope that a more glorious and generous world awaited them after death.

Some of the headstones show rising suns, their light presumably shining on the dead; angel faces that are neither male nor female but still kindly and child-like in aspect; crude totemic faces that look like the great stone heads of Easter Island.

In one remarkable carving, a young woman wearing her hair to her shoulders, rather than pinned up or hidden behind a cap, holds a flower; even in stone, she exudes vitality. In a period of chronic, wasting diseases, crude medical treatments, short life expectancies and high mortality rates, the promise of another existence without pain or want must have seemed like salvation indeed.

∎ Thomas Gilson’s black and white photographs are elegant and find unexpected, humorous details in the carvings and the texts written on the headstones. William Gilson’s text is elegiac and thoughtful. While some of the carvings are not sophisticated, they have a rough life to them that the modern, polished, blander headstone does not. These were tough, judgmental people who fought for survival, and their funerary arts reflect that uncompromising spirit.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.