Alice Outwater, Ph.D
When it comes to gravestones, there are as many choices as there are individuals. Some people are adamant about their ashes being spread from a mountain top, on the water, in the forest or over their garden. We will limit this column, however, to traditional burials in a cemetery with a gravestone.
Years ago I took a course on gravestones at the Shelburne Museum. The instructor, a scholar on the subject, tip-toed into the classroom as if he were walking on sacred ground. We visited some old cemeteries learning about the changes in styles of the stones. It is rare to find stones earlier than the late 1700s. Originally, abundant land and field stones provided single marked graves on a farmer’s property.
Burials became usual in the late 1700s, often near the churches. Upright slate stones dominated in the 1800s, but many are chipped, with inscriptions worn thin. Smaller stones with the names of children under two years old and mothers who died in childbirth are common. One family had lost five infants, all in the winter months. These relate a painful sorrow.
I walked around a private family cemetery with most of the graves from the early 1800s. The stones were so worn that names and dates had been washed thin with time. I could still read Adelia who was born in 1842 and died at 35 years old—perhaps in childbirth. Several of the women had died around 70 years and the men the same. That would have been considered a long life. A Ruth, born in 1861, died at 86 years old.
Some inscriptions are amusing, others sober. “We did it the way we wanted and are glad.” And another, “The pain stops here.”
The gravestone of Ellen Patterson, who died of black measles in 1863 at the age of 18 in Glover, reads,
Stop my friends as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you will be
Prepare for death and follow me
Graveyards often reflect epidemics that took so many lives: consumption, dysentery, small pox, fevers such as meningitis and the scarlet and typhoid fevers. Spanish influenza (1918) was the last pandemic. Years of epidemics meant shorter lives, especially affecting young children.
The well-kept cemeteries are appealing, mowed and weeded, with stones standing erect instead of lurching to one side or vandalized and broken. Greenwood Cemetery was outstanding toward the north end and seemed more like a park. Several of the trees must have been 200 years old. All the bushes were well trimmed. One area there had 44 small four-to-five inch stones in a long row marked Baby Jane, Baby Thomas . . . The babies had been entrusted to the Catholic church and were buried together. So many deaths.
John and I had bought two lots at the Charlotte Grand View Cemetery adjacent to the First Congregational Church. Yet this preparation is not sufficient.
Choice of stones include slate, marble, granite … one must pick the size, and the shape—sharp or rounded corners, flat or curved at the top, fancy engraving on the stone such as a bird or flower. Other decisions are the font and its size, and the placement of the inscription.
I had to attend to all this after John died and found it overwhelming. In desperation I contacted Tom, an architect friend. We walked around the cemetery, examining various stones. He pointed at one and said, “That’s what I’m choosing for myself.” I knew immediately it would be perfect for my husband: classic, dignified and strong. We took a photo so the engraver could copy it. My name and birth dates are engraved beneath his. The date of my death will eventually be carved there. To determine the size of the stone, I used the golden mean of 0.62:1, width versus height, as the Greeks did in their architecture. Then the type size and font must be chosen.
There is ample space for other family members, who will have smaller stones beneath if they like.
As you gain comfort considering gravestones, envision your own legacy and engage family members. Then leave instructions for your wishes. It’s ideal to put these inevitable decisions in place while family members are calm.
Friends tell me they visit John’s grave. I frequently go myself or pause to say a prayer and meditate. I even picture his spirit flying around at night, welcoming new residents. I find it reassuring to know he’s there waiting for my arrival.