Monday, August 10, 2009

Fond Reminisce on the "Semester of Death"

Sunday we rode our bikes through Essex, Gloucester and Magnolia to Manchester-by-the-Sea stopping briefly at the bestest cemetery ever and bringing back all the wonders of a college semester spent studying Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, and "The Puritan Way of Death". Can anyone possibly image a happier way to spend a gloomy New England spring? Since then, I've never been able to think of those two authors as anything but dreadfully mournful but I have come to embrace all that is good, happy and wonderful about Puritan death practices. Most especially their gravestones! And while Connecticut, the second official colony, does have some good stones, it's nothing like the wonders found in Eastern Massachusetts, right alongside our Sunday bike route.

Manchester's "Old Cemetery 1661" sits on a hill just to the east of town, surrounded by a iron fence, overshadowed by tall pines and populated by stones (and people's remains). In it too are beautiful examples of the classic gravestone engraving progression from Death's Head, to Cherub, to Willow and Urn. Some styles so distinct they were obviously the work of a particular carver. Also among the stones were some with a design I'd not heard of, a rising sun. If, as Ludwig states in his work, Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815 the Puritans choose designs that communicated to the living, their idea of death and the afterlife than what were the folks with the rising sun stones trying to say? The message of the Death's Heads is obvious, things are pretty bleak over on this side. Likewise, the appearance of wings alongside the head, and a happy face, reflects the Puritan's happily evolving view of afterlife. The willow and urn complete the cycle. Things are now in a restful state, quiet, contained.

But how does the rising sun fit within this? Were these 'rebel' Puritans who believed in, dare I say, the resurrection? Were these people even Puritans? Were they, with their beliefs etched into immortal stone alongside the other downers, trying to show their differences of opinion?

Riding along the rocky Cape Ann coast and through the salt marshes that surround them it is something to wonder about. Most of the houses, as well as the farms these folks built are long gone, but they left their gravestones behind to tell us something. Cycling along winding roads I've got to wonder what it is.

BTW, there is an actual book entitled The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change (Galaxy Books) and I highly recommend it!

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