TRINITY TOMBSTONE, Financial District

by Kevin Walsh

I think humanity is alone in the universe, which for me doesn’t cause anomie, just disappointment. At age 55 I already feel cheated that half of things are over with, and the great nothingness that existed before my birth is getting closer. Most people are more or less comfortable with it, since they have children to carry on the line, at least. Given my own temperament that’s unlikely for me, so what I would like is a really good tombstone.

In the 1700s, tombstones reached their esthetic peak. No, they weren’t always measured correctly and the chiseler often had to squeeze in some letters at the end of the line so hyphenation wouldn’t be necessary. Yet, there were some tricks. Note the little ‘e’ next to the y in the top line. (The word is the 18th Century method of writing “the.” The “y” isn’t a real y, but a leftover form of the thorn, an early English symbol of the unvoiced ‘th’ sound.)

Stonecarving was a true profession — given my love of letterforms, it might have been one I’d have considered if I were around then (my clumsiness would be a problem, though). Some of the best stonecarvers achieved some small fame. ¬†When we see tombstones from the 1700s, they can act as reminders of what writing styles were like then. All print at the time had serifs, the little hooks on the ends of letter strokes. Nouns were capitalized, as they are in modern German (which is a sort of a long-lost sister language, two twins separated at birth who have spent a long time away from each other). The “long s” was used for a regular ‘s’ in the middles of words till about 1800. It survives in German in the double-s form used in blackletter.

Over the years tombstones became more generic; the frequently-found angels and skulls disappeared, and though you’ll find some individually-styled gems in NYC’s major cemeteries such as Green-Wood, Evergreens or Woodlawn, modern tombstones are boring and generic indeed, though the recent practice of including a color photo of the deceased is an interesting development.

Let’s return to tombstones with character, like this one at downtown Trinity.




D. June 29, 2013 - 10:41 am

I’ve seen tombstones like that in New Jersey (at the really old churches).

Bill Tweeddale July 5, 2013 - 7:37 am

By leaving out the birth date, they couldn’t make the same mistake the stonecarver did on Ed Koch’s tombstone in Uptown Trinity…


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