Just as a people's collective soul is expressed through the things they make, the possessions they treasure, and the works they undertake, so too is it evident in the ceremonial trappings of death. This was brought home to me during a walk through a country graveyard on a cold, blustery, snow-threatening afternoon, as I went on a time-trip back to the founding of our Republic. Let me show you what I saw.
I'll spare you the first hundred years or so of the journey. We're all only too aware of the highly polished stones with perfectly machined letterforms, mechanically scribed, that constitute the modern, dull gravestone. I'll spare you, too, the kitschiness that's found its way into the graveyard; the identical depictions, chemically etched, of a modish Jesus holding a lamb that bedecked three recent graves in close succession -- suggested a Lillian Vernon Catalog approach to commemoration of the departed that does us no credit.
But that brings up one very interesting point: Religious imagery (kitschy or otherwise) didn't inform the American Protestant gravestone until very recently indeed. It was not until the twentieth century that crosses and crowns of thorns and what-have-you began to appear on these Lutheran graves. Look carefully at the photos below; on not a single one does a cross appear. Sure, the inscriptions and epitaphs refer to an afterlife and a gentle and beneficent God, but these references are incidental and not the focus of the stones. Belief in Deity is only implicit in these stones; it's quite plain that these people, while convinced that their place in an Afterlife was secure, made their tombstones perform a largely civil, rather than religious, function: This is who I was. Protestations of perfect faith were unnecessary.
On our first stop: There are at least three of these very strange tombstones from the early 1900's within an easy bike ride of my house. Local historian Eugene Scheel writes that these "full-sized sandstone oak trees were imported from Italy" (the expense must have been staggering) "with the place for the inscription cut as if it were a flap of bark." Quite bizarre -- a strange penetration of Beaux Arts kitsch into the countryside. And what enterprising sales rep rode about the Loudoun countryside hawking these crazy tombstones to the newly bereft, eh? What was his pitch to the grieving?
This next one's included in our travelogue not because it's remarkable but precisely because it isn't. It's a control gravestone. This is as unremarkable a mid-nineteenth-century specimen as I could find this afternoon. In typical Victorian fashion, the letterforms cheerfully switch from mixed-case to all caps -- watch this as we go back in time, it's important -- but it's clear that this tombstone was produced with the help of a mass-production machine. The manufacturer was taking orders at a distance and producing stones in quantity to be shipped elsewhere. His emotional involvement with the corpse he was helping commemorate was absolutely nil. Death as Industry. The Assembly Line of Death. The Revolution of Interchangeable Parts had by now long had its meathooks into the American landscape, and the mass-produced gravestone is just one more expression of it.
John Stoutsenberger fought in the Revolutionary War, attest the Daughters of the American Revolution; they put a plaque to this effect next to his grave saying so -- a Musician with the 4th Battalion of Continental Artillery, Pennsylvania. Based on his tombstone he was 14 years old at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I'm blanching with horror at the thought that my own precious son is quickly approaching that age. At any rate, John survived the war and lived to a ripe old age.
John's may have been one of the the last tombstones in the area to have been carved wholly by hand -- 1832. You can see very slight imperfections, particularly in the unevenness of the spacing between letters. It's an expert job, though, beautifully executed, with John 's name in proud small caps. I wonder if that's just because Stoutsenberger (rendered "Stautzenberger" by the DAR, for some reason) is such a long name.
Isn't it odd, the practice of declaring exactly how many days the departed had lived? If they'd had stopwatches I imagine they'd have added hours, minutes and seconds to the span. This custom seems to have petered out slowly over the 19th century.
The 1820s and '30s saw a great Die-Off of the soldiers who fought the American Revolution. Did anybody write them hagiographic coffee-table books -- Ye Greateste Generationne? Someone should have. John Axline, who lived an incredibly long life for those times, born in October of 1739, would have been about 38 in 1777 -- very old to be gallivanting off to join General Washington. But gallivant he did. Wonder what his motivation was? Coincidentally, if Axline had enlisted in the French and Indian War (1756), he would have been the same age as John Stoutsenberger when he joined the Revolution.
Here's where things start to get seriously beautiful. Look at the letterforms on Coopper's stone, straining so hard for formal elegance, with Roman pretensions, superscript abbreviations, carefully scribed serif capitals. A very elegant thing -- but so obviously handmade. One major difference between Axline's and Coopper's carvings is that Axline's carver was able to give varying weights to his strokes, alternating heavy strokes with hairlines and roman with italic forms -- much in keeping with the fashionable formal typography of the time. Coopper's carver was working with technology 17 years less sophisticated. I have no idea what evolved between 1815 and 1832 -- better chisels, imported from Europe, perhaps? Mechanical assistance? Simply rising standards? -- but clearly a great leap forward happened.
But look how, even in the early nineteenth century, mechanization was beginning to wipe out individuality, character, beauty.
Such beautiful, beautiful lettering in the next two, plainly done by the same carver in the 1810s. So freehand, so artistic, but such confidently eccentric lines. Just lovely.
Date unknown, but it must be very, very early indeed. A sudden thought: Maybe that's not someone's initials, but his last word instead! AAC! ("There's a Camaaaaaaaargh in France...")
Isack Leuckens, you tough-assed, backward-N Pennsylvania Dutch bastard! You hightailed it out of serfdom in the Thirty-Years-War-torn Palatinate, you surged West on Billy Penn's dime when West was anything to the left of Philadelphia (pop. 200), and when you heard about good Indian-free squattin' on Lord Fairfax's estate south of the Potomac you snuck in ahead of the bouncers and plunked down a miserable one-room log box, called it home, and started scrabbling at the earth, extracting potatoes and corn by sheer strength of your indomitable will! And there you are, you son of a bitch! Isack, here's a glass raised to you!
All right, time to stop horsing around. Here we are in the presence of a knee-weakeningly magnificent piece of folk art. I just knelt down beside it and wanted to weep for a styrofoam and petroleum America -- a place that once produced things like this tombstone, and now proudly touts Aeon Flux, the jello shot and the Hummer 3 as the highest expressions of its commonweal.
THe BoDY oF
LIFe AgeD 57
Look at this! Dear God, LOOK AT THIS! Have you ever seen anything so unbelievably humble & sweet & loving & tender & eccentric & utterly made-it-with-my-own-hands human?
Ja, I am very sorry for your loss, Brother Alois. I know your beloved wife meant everything in the world to you, that she shared the terrible, long journey from die Pfaltz, and although you are too poor to send to Philadelphia for a fine headstone for her, as a friend to you and her I will do my best to carve a beautiful stone to honor her memory and your love for her...
He did a beautiful job.