Gravestone lecture provides insight into New Salem’s past

  • Brenda Sullivan, creator and operator of a company called Gravestone Girls, provided a tour of New Salem’s Center Cemetery on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

  • Brenda Sullivan, creator and operator of a company called Gravestone Girls, provided a tour of New Salem’s Center Cemetery on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

  • Brenda Sullivan, creator and operator of a company called Gravestone Girls, inspects an older gravestone in New Salem’s Center Cemetery on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

  • Brenda Sullivan, creator and operator of a company called Gravestone Girls, at right, explains symbolism on gravestones to New Salem resident Adam Frost and Amherst resident Charlotte Westhead on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer
Published: 9/13/2022 12:17:55 PM
Modified: 9/13/2022 12:17:24 PM

NEW SALEM — A New Salem Public Library program recently blended history, sociology, typography, geology and a religion class all into one.

Brenda Sullivan, creator and operator of a company called Gravestone Girls that offers public lectures, walking tours and gravestone art, led a tour and gravestone rubbing class at Center Cemetery over the weekend, shining a light on what this burial ground can tell residents about the past.

She first spoke about the basics of graveyards, noting that because towns needed a meetinghouse and a burial ground in order to be chartered, it is often easy to find old graveyards.

“If you want to find a graveyard, look for the steeples,” Sullivan said. Burial grounds are typically found in the center of town, often by the church. New Salem’s Center Cemetery is a prime example.

Even though they may seem like unchanged locations, many graveyards transform throughout the years, she said. Gravestones are sometimes taken out of the ground and placed in near rows to make for easier landscaping work, like mowing. Plus, Sullivan said older gravestones often have a headstone and footstone, marking both ends of a grave.

The original graveyard is often in the center of a plot of land, and is later expanded with newer graves on the outskirts. Sullivan said there is often a receiving tomb, colloquially known as “the keep,” in the center of the land. Now often used to store lawn mowers, the keep was once used to store bodies in the winter months when the ground was too frozen for burial.

Iconography and poems marked on a stone were lessons the living were supposed to learn from the dead.

“Death was omnipresent, and it is shown in the stones,” Sullivan noted.

For example, “Remember Death” can be read on one gravestone in Center Cemetery. Sullivan explained staying warm and fed was difficult when towns were first being settled, so death was always present in people’s minds.

“I think the iconography is wonderful,” commented Adam Frost, a New Salem resident who attended the workshop. “I love older images.”

Gravestones from the 18th century were oriented east. This was because the angel Gabriel was thought to come from the east on judgment day, and grieving family members wanted to ensure their loved ones were not missed when the angel came. Sullivan explained that today, graves are often oriented toward visually appealing sights.

The oldest symbols found on New England graves from the 1600s depict skulls with feathers. Sullivan explained superstitious residents were afraid to draw a human thinking the drawing was of a ghost, something that was forbidden by religious law.

“They are some of the greatest graphics in the New World,” Sullivan said of gravestone designs.

As people became less superstitious, faces were carved on stones. This evolved to depictions of urns and willow trees. The willow tree is a symbol of a grieving person, but Sullivan added it also represents that humans are like trees with clear life cycles.

“This shows a societal shift as people became less religious,” Sullivan explained.

The Feltons and the Sikes were two families of western Massachusetts gravestone carvers. Their work spanned four to six generations and can be found across New Salem’s Center Cemetery.

The gravestones often “walk” or move as the ground shifts throughout the seasons, she noted. Gravestones often are embedded one foot into the ground. When they “walk,” Sullivan said, price tags or test lettering can often be found in the section of the stone that was supposed to be underground, showing the commerce aspect of this history.

Mistakes can be seen across the graveyard as well. Carvers often did the work by hand without planning or stencils, she explained. They sometimes forgot a letter in their work and would place the letter above the word, marking the correct spelling.

All the stones from before the 1800s were locally sourced, not having established roads or trains to get the stone from other places. Sullivan said these rocks can tell about the local geological history, as well as the social history.

“If you are in New England, she said, “everywhere has great stones.”

For more information about Sullivan’s work with Gravestone Girls, visit gravestonegirls.com.

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.


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