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Barlow: Gothic Images

Take a walk through an old Vermont cemetery and on the tombstones you’ll see images like weeping willows, baby lambs and winged angel heads. These symbols were popular during the 1800s and reflected a desire to find happiness and meaning in an afterlife. But in the southern Vermont town of Grafton, there are reminders of a darker time in cemetery artwork.

Lydia S. Goodenow was only nine years old when she died in March 1813. Her moss covered stone at Burgess Cemetery has two rows of diamonds running up the sides and a large sunburst at the head. But what makes her stone remarkable is its secondary symbolism. Between her biographical information and epitaph is the etching of a casket – a bird’s eye view so all six sides of the box are seen. In the center of the casket are the young girl's initials.

The image is rare in Vermont – I’ve only seen a handful among thousands of stones – and even more unusual for the time when it was carved. Up until 1750 New England cemeteries were drenched in death. The most popular images were winged skulls flashing toothy grins and hooded figures of Death chopping the bulbous heads off flowers. Epitaphs usually began, "Here lyes the body of …" and might even tell how that person died. These were graphic depictions of mortality, of the brevity of life and the suddenness of death. The stones were warnings to the living and reminders that we all, at some point, return to the earth.

Hundreds of years earlier, this imagery had been popular in Europe. And early white settlers in New England copied what they had been taught. New England's most elaborate and macabre tombstone art can be found around port cities, such as Boston, Portsmouth and Portland, because these early settlements were wealthier and had more stone carvers.

Vermont is land-locked and we virtually skipped an entire generation of cemetery artwork. By the time Vermont cities and towns incorporated, these gothic graveyard symbols had fallen out of favor, and our relationship with death and mortality had been transformed. Goodbye to Death's Heads and hello to cherub heads, angels blowing trumpets and flowers bouquets. Symbolism moved away from images of bodies in the ground and toward souls leaving Earth and going to Heaven.

And that’s what makes Lydia’s grave in Grafton so peculiar. By 1813, symbols such as skulls, bones and caskets had become unpopular and were generally viewed as, well, kind of creepy.

But that’s one of the reasons Vermont cemetery artwork is fascinating. Stoneworkers here were widely unpredictable and far removed from the influence of the latest fad. There was no rulebook for the work they did and they seemed to relish experimentation.

I don’t know how Lydia Goodenow died – the death of young children was common in the early 1800s – but perhaps her end was so tragic, so sad, that it could only be represented by this archaic symbol harkening back to bleaker times.

Daniel Barlow is the co-founder of Green Mountain Graveyards, a photography and research project devoted to Vermont cemeteries. He also serves on Montpelier's Cemetery Commission and works as a lobbyist for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.
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