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Gravestone Iconology

Seventeenth-Century Iconology

Headstone icons provide insight into the life of the person buried there. Because hand-carving was labor intensive and expensive (most carvers charged by the letter), icons were sometimes used to help convey the story of the deceased’s life and/or death without the use of words.


In the 17th century, New England Puritan beliefs about being born with "original sin" generated anxieties about "eternal damnation."  These Puritan beliefs can be read on the gravestones in the First Burial Ground.  The Puritans did not advocate using religious symbols, such as crosses and cherubs, but used motifs such as winged skulls (death's heads), crossed bones, hourglasses, coffins and skeletons.


The skull and crossed bones stood for death of the body while the hourglass served as a reminder that time was passing or time is running out.  The standard three-lobed shape of these early Puritan gravestones reflect the belief that to enter eternity, the soul passed through arches and  portals.


You will often see the Latin phrases, "Memento Mori" which means Be mindful of death or Remember you will die, and "Fugit Hora" which means Time flies!


One of the finest stone carvers in early New England was Joseph Lamson (1658-1722) of Charlestown, who was known for his expert carving and detailed stones of winged skulls, finials and borders of ornate fruits, vines and flowers.  The stones he used were heavy slate from England, expensive stones known for their width, thickness, weight and dark grey color.  In the 18th century, light American slate would be used.


Lamson winged skulls typically have some distinctive characteristics including; eyebrows that have hooked ends, eyebrow marks that connect to the nose mark, and a lip-like mark above the teeth.


The First Burial Ground has several Lamson carved stones; Francis Wyman, John Burbeen, Ann Convers and Abraham Fyfield to name a few.

Eighteenth-Century Iconology

As we entered into the 18th century, significant changes in shape, height, design and composition replaced the stark Puritan style. 





 Winged faces representing resurrection and ever-lasting life, smiling angels, urns, willow trees and cherubs replaced the orthodox Puritan motifs.

Chain Links (3)

Divine Trinity

Coffin

Mortality

Columns

Heavenly entrance

Cross

Emblem of faith

Draped Urn

Sorrow, mourning

Flag

Military service

Flower

Fragility of life

Fruit

Eternal plenty

Garland

Victory in death

Hand Pointing Down

The Hand of God

descending from Heaven

Hand Pointing Up

Pathway to heaven

Ivy

Immortality

Laurel Branch/Leaves

Special achievement

Oak Leaves/Acorn

Maturity, ripe old age

Torch Inverted

End of life, death

Tree Stump

The beauty of life

Urn

Immortality, soul

Weeping Willow

Perpetual mourning,

grief

Wheat Sheaf

Ripe for the harvest,

divine harvest

Wreath

Hope

BURDETT MANSION

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Woburn Historical Society

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781.933.5002

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www.WoburnHistoricalSociety.org

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