The Masks of Orthodoxy: Folk Gravestone Carving in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, 1689-1805

The Masks of Orthodoxy: Folk Gravestone Carving in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, 1689-1805

The Masks of Orthodoxy: Folk Gravestone Carving in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, 1689-1805

The Masks of Orthodoxy: Folk Gravestone Carving in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, 1689-1805

Excerpt

This study looks at a period of New England's history through an obscure craft known at the time as "graying," "ingraving," or "stonecutting," but which is now called gravestone making. A physically demanding trade, gravestone making attracted workers with strong backs and steady hands. Cutters were "laborers" in the literal meaning of the word, and many were full time masons, shipwrights, and housewrights. The trade also attracted educated professional men such as surveyors, justices, and retired military officers, who quarried and inscribed stones from what may have been a sense of duty--these men sometimes were the only members of their community who could write adequately. The Plymouth County stonecutters whose lives and work are described here were a handful of such craftsmen of varied backgrounds active in the colonial history of Massachusetts. Unknown, unexceptional men, most were farmers who undertook stonecutting on the side. Two were church deacons. A third was a prominent lawyer who represented the town of Middleborough in the Massachusetts General Court. None acquired more than a local reputation as a gravestone maker. All were forgotten by history within one or two generations. Because the decorative aspect of stonecutting was a highly personal craft, however, these men unwittingly left in their designs clues that reveal much about their thoughts and religious attitudes, and, indirectly, about the events taking place around them. An examination of these clues in a local context offers what is hoped will be a new insight into the history of the inarticulate or "common" man in New England's past, as well as an explanation of the curious facial expressions on New England grave stones that for many years have fascinated and baffled those who have had the opportunity to see them.

The thesis presented in this study argues that gravestone makers in Plymouth County were motivated by a far greater degree of conscious intent than has been previously supposed. Three propositions are examined: first, that the skull images which have usually been interpreted as symbols of death were in fact intended as symbols of ghosts and spirits released by death; second, that the facial caricatures which gravestone makers introduced into their skeletal or semiskeletal spirit carvings were not the result of a random stylistic drift or a lack of training, but were a deliberate punning and playing . . .

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