George D. Six
George D. Six

Walt Hall

Walter K. Hall, President of St, Albans Rotary, visited the Putnam club today, ostensibly to re-recruit George Six, a former member of the St, Albans group. Here Hall is pleasantly distracted by Putnam greeters Leslee Shaffer (left) and Denise Springer

Eric Smith. Jason Safford

Rotarian Jason Safford (right) chats with guest Eric Smith (Evans Insurance Agency, St, Albans).

George D. Six

Cultural attitudes, history shown in gravestones

June 31, 2012

George Six holds a degree in electrical engineering from WVU, but Putnam Rotarians today learned that George's interests range far beyond the technical world of voltage, ohms and kilowatts. George has studied art, history and philosophy through old grave markers in New England.

"Cemeteries and gravestones allow us to look into the history and culture of the past," he said. "They give us a visual record of changing attitudes towards death.

"The changes occur over time. The styles and inscriptions change and cultural trends dictate those."

Six displayed a wealth of photos and gravestone replicas from New England, most dating before the 19th century. He also brought along some two dozen books on his esoteric field of study.

"[The replicas] were made by some friends of ours from Worcester, Massachusetts, the Gravestone Ladies," he said. "They are three ladies who travel the whole state, take pictures, do [facsimiles], and even sell calendars of their products.

"Many of the early settlers were Puritans," he said. "The Puritan world view wasn't limited to the belief that death is a reward, and that shows up in some of the symbolism that they used.

"They believed that upon death the soul is 'released' from its earthbound world," he explained.

"Some of the symbols used include coffins, urns, imps of death, geometric rosettes, the skull & crossbones, winged effigies, skulls with faces.

"Some of the effigies," Six continued, "look optimistic and cheerful, some are quite clearly scowling, and others have expressions of confusion or uncertainty on their face.

"The winged skull is the flight of the soul from mortal man.

"The death's head was a clear warning by the Puritans to live every moment in anticipation of the moment of death and transition to the afterlife," said Six, "an eternity either of salvation -- or damnation."

"Amen, brother," a minister in the audience called out.

On the old memorials, the letter "J" is usually represented by "I"; and "V" is used for "U." And the runic "thorn" for "TH" resembles the Latin letter "Y." A sign such as "Ye Olde Pub" should be read as "The Old Pub," Six explained as he pointed out the details of several inscriptions.

"The earliest gravestone on Cape Cod is in 1683," sixty years after the first settlement.," A stone from Windsor, Connecticut, dates from 1644. "The earliest gravestones in the Boston area date from the 1650s."

Field stones and wooden markers were often used on earlier graves. The wood deteriorated and the stones were often lost.

In cleaning up one Boston burial ground, the markers were put aside in a pile, and then people could not remember where to replace them. The stones and their history are still there, but the graves are lost.

Bakers took slate markers from another Boston cemetery for baking bread in their ovens. "When you got bread from these bakeries, the bread often had impressions from the gravestones."

Latin inscriptions such as "Memento mori" ("Remember your mortality" or "Remember you must die") and "Fugit hora" ("Time flies") often appear. Many inscriptions are phonetic, and if a carver ran out of space, he simply continued the word on the next line.

But, in spite of spelling and style, some of the inscriptions may be sending clear messages across the centuries. There is the sentiment, for instance, on the stone for Cynthia Stevens (1742-1776) in a burial ground in Hollis, New Hampshire:

Here lies Cynthia, Stevensí wife,
She lived six years in calm and strife.
Death came at last and set her free,
I was glad and so was she.

There were few divorces among Puritan couples. We wonder what epitaph Cynthia might have left for her husband had he gone first.

To view a PowerPoint presentation on Old New England Cemeteries by George Six, click HERE!

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