Zac McDorrMy favorite gravestone is the one pictured, which is located in the old cemetery on Berry’s Mill Road in West Bath. It has an unusual combination of the early skull motif and the later urn-and-willow design, skipping right over the winged cherub that came between.

The earliest New England gravestones had a winged skull design on top, or in some cases a skull and crossbones. As opposed to Catholics, the early Puritans did not like graven images, such as angels or saints. The skull was seen as an earthly image, and a reminder that death awaited all of us. The epitaphs were often morbid as well, such as this gem:

“Remember me as you pass by,
For you may be the next to die
As I am now, so you must be
Prepare for death and follow me.”
A new design, the winged cherub, arrived in the mid-1700s and gradually replaced the winged skull. Rather than stress the mortality of Man, the cherub was a sign of resurrection and the afterlife. Epitaphs became more cheerful:
“Here cease thy tears, suppress thy fruitless mourn,
His soul, the immortal part, has upward flown.”

A third major design, the urn-and-willow, becomes common around here about 1800, when the Neo-Classical Revival period began. Rounded shoulders on stones were replaced by classical squared ones. The urn was the funerary receptacle for the ancient Romans, who mainly cremated the dead, while the willow was a symbol of Persephone, the goddess of the underworld.

While these three images represent the majority of early stones in New England, other designs can also be found:

Winged hourglass: Time flies.

Anchor: A seaman, or a sign of hope.

Ankh: Egyptian symbol of eternal life.

Bible: Clergyman or religious person.

Lamb: A child’s grave.

Grapes: The blood of Christ.

There are plenty more, and Masonic symbols are common, as well.

Source: “Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow,” by James Deetz, 1967