Sunday, December 04, 2005

Departed this Life

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.

[Name illegible]
VR*** Who
DePATeD thiS
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.


XTCfan said...

Wow ... I actually got a lump in my throat looking at that last one. It's so ... human.

In Loving Memory of a Name.

We are so busy racing forward that we have no idea anymore of the foundation upon which we stand. That's sad.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Best post on th' interweb this week. Completely good. "Control gravestone". I like the John Axline best.

xdkbxnvf- one of the few combinations of letters that absolutely nothing can be said about to render it humorous.

Neil Shakespeare said...

Very pretty. When I was a kid one of my summer jobs was to mow around the gravestones at the cemetary with the push mower while Uncle Joe cleaned up with the rider. Made intimate acquaintance with lots of dead folks that way.

Gravity said...

A few years ago, I would often picnic in the graveyard in the lot a few spaces down from where I lived.
The graveyard is old - I think the latest stone in it is from the 1870s.
One picnic with my girlfriend, I discovered a plentitude of wild strawberries growing riot over the plots at the back of the lot, and happily began picking and eating them.
They were sweet and delicious. I offered some to my girlfriend, and saw what she must be thinking by the look of horror that came over her face.
I've never really been bothered by that sort of thing, but my response ("What? Dead people make the BEST strawberries!") didn't seem to comfort her.

Kevin Wolf said...

Jesus Christ, Neddie, you brought tears to my eyes.

I wonder about the log stone. Never seen anything like it in my neck of the woods. Was the "frontier" mentality already so codified by the early 1900s that that was what people wanted to depict? That the deceased had been a trapper or something? Granted, within decades of that we had Davy Crockett on TV.

My hometown in Conn. was founded in 1633. The First Church has quite a yard with some magnificent stones. I don't see in your survey the peculiar flat, grey stones with skull faces so common in the northeast. (They look like Edward Gorey had a hand in them.) Were they not a popular model of tombstones round your way?

An Upstep or a Downstep said...

Memento Mori

Anonymous said...

Isn't the log stone a symbol of someone cut down in the prime of life? I have a preservationist architect in the family, and at one point she did some research on these things (with which I am poorly acquainated) and there are a number of commonly recurring symbols with (at the time) well-understood meanings. This is the case in general with art (as I dredge up an ancient art history lecture about the bed warmer in a painting being a symbol that the marriage bed had turned cold).

Neddie said...

>>I don't see in your survey the peculiar flat, grey stones with skull faces so common in the northeast. (They look like Edward Gorey had a hand in them.) Were they not a popular model of tombstones round your way?

Interestingly, no. Kev. I know the ones you mean, with the roundy-faced skulls with wings. I've seen them only in the Northeast and in parts of Europe.

Two things might be at work:

1) "My" graveyard dates only to the late 1700s. Quite possible the skull-faced ones, which are fully 100 years older, simply were out of fashion.

2) These folks were Lutheran - Pennsylvania Dutch; your Boston folks were more your English Calvinists; maybe there were simply different customs.

dfbbbkdl, which was branded on the forehead of many a bosomy Puritan wench: Damn'd For Being Buxom Before the King's Delicious Lunch

(Is it just me, or are these word-verification thingies getting longer and more verbose? Did they add some letters to trip up spambots?)

Neddie said...

>> there are a number of commonly recurring symbols with (at the time) well-understood meanings.

Sure... I didn't post a pic of it because I don't want to ridicule my newly deceased neighbors on the Internet, but we're deep enough in the Comments here... Probably won't take a hundred years before people scratch their heads in bewilderment at the oblique "3" inscribed prominently on a gravestone in another boneyard near here. Yep. Dale Earnhardt fan.

tbnas -- misses being an anagram for both Santa and one letter!

helmut said...

NedJ, you're making me cry. Cut it out. You have now posted the two best blog posts of the past week of any blog. You post. I link.

DuWayne Brayton said...

I think to that Christians in America - not all but a lot of them - had issues with the worship of graven images. It might have been something to do with being to poor to have the fancies (the tree carved in stone belies that to a degree) but kep in mind that a lot of folks got into a lot of places from the 1600's into the 1800's in some areas. Course they also would have been put on trial for hanging the mistle toe, having a tree up for christmas or showing off a cross. . .

Anonymous said...

Just try placing an original, non-pre-fabricated marker in a contemporary cemetery.

Last year my dear father-in-law died at the age of 56 due to cancer. He was quite the craftsman, and before his death (obviously) he had picked out some lovely marble slabs to turn into countertops for his home. He died before completing this project. After his death, my brother-in-law, also a decent craftsman,was going to hand-engrave a piece of marble for the grave. No dice. The cemetery wouldn't let us provide a home wrought marker.We were required to use a store-bought one.

Anonymous said...

Idjet. Pushin' the wrong buttons.

Anway...This cemetery was once a local cemetery. The graves date back to the late-1800's, so there are some hand carved stones. The cemetery was purchased by a national cemetery chain, for lack of a better term although a cemetery chain store sounds especially souless. Since the purchase, the cemetery has been especially insensitive, conformist and plain ol' difficult to deal with. Profit through death and all that.

Aw, I'm just bitching. But, sadly, even death is now homogenized, sanitzed and pre-sold for your consumption.

And "3" stands for Dale Earnhardt? Huh. The things a gal learns from Uncle Neddie.

The latest pain reliever found to have nasty side effects. Spontaneous Combustion.

Anonymous said...

The tree stump grave marker has been used by the fraternal order Woodmen of the World, founded in 1883 in either Nebraska or Iowa. The organization donates grave markers to deceased members. Whether there is any other iconography at work here, I don't know.

Anonymous said...

Mrs. Decatur Dem informs me that her great-great grandfather has a tree stump marker, and he died in the mid 19th century. So apparently it predates the founding of W.O.W. What is the symbolism, and where did it start??

As a matter of aesthetics, I'm partial to the New England markers with a weeping willow and an urn. (If I recall correctly, that came about after the death's-head-with-wings icon.) I can't call to mind what the willow-and-urn symbolism is all about, either.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the tree stump in Cuba, and South America too.

teh l4m3 said...

Inspirational. I'm going to carve my own headstone -- I don't trust anyone who might survive me.

Oh, and the word verification thingie? Mostly it's random, I think, although I've noticed that the length of the "words" sometimes seem to be proportional to the amount of traffic the site receives.

zogbpvf: the interjection most frequently spewed by Republicans confronted with exit polls.

Anonymous said...

The stump is often used for Woodman of the World members - in fact, the group supplied markers for their indigent members. Usually, however, it will say "Here Rests a Woodman of the World" and/or "Dum Tacet Clamat", which translate roughly "Though silent, he speaks". The Woodmen were much more prevalent in the western states.

Anonymous said...

Hello ~ John Axline, whose tombstone you included in your blog about your country walk, was my ancestor, my 4th great grandfather. Here's some more information about him: John Axline served in the Revolutionary war as a Private under Lt. Col. Posey in the Company of the 3rd. Regiment with his name spelled "John ExIine".
His name appears on the muster roll dated 16 Apr. 1782.
His grandson Attorney Henry A. Axline of Columbus, Ohio, in searching for John's war record noticed that on the payroll, the name of John Exline was always set to one side and marked "for special services". Later he found an old chest which the family had brought from Virginia and in it was a diary kept by Christena,
wife of John Axline. She had made this notation "Everything is in confusion around me. Since John made the last gunpowder, the British have confiscated everything we have".
This excited the curiosity of Henry Axline who searched the army supply records and found a record of the gunpowder that John had made. John would fight for a time and then go home and make gunpowder, then go out and fight again.

On 15 Sept. 1784 a certificate for the sum of 16 pounds, 19 shillings was issued to John Exline in payment for his services.
John AxIine was a member of the Council of the Lutheran Church of New Jerusalem in Lovettsville, Va. 25 Mar. 1786.
It was so wonderful to find this picture. Thanks! M.H. Keith