I can’t afford to travel much anymore, but in the years from about 1985-2008, I managed to make one or two out of town trips per year, and roved about as much as my finances and lack of ability to drive permitted. One of my favorite places to visit was Boston and its surrounding satellites, which included the seaside town of Marblehead, an hour or two north of town. I was attracted to its winding roads, small salt box houses from the 18th and 17th Centuries, and its picturesque cemetery, Old Burial Hill. I went there twice, once in spring and the second time in fall; the first visit, it rained much of the time, but the second time, I hit the jackpot and went in October at the peak of fall color season. I was also tipped off about Marblehead by H.P. Lovecraft’s classic story The Festival, which is set in the fictional Kingsport but was inspired by Marblehead:
In a flash all the past of New England—all the past of Old England—all the past of Anglo-Saxondom and the Western World–swept over me and identified me with the stupendous totality of all things in such a way as it never did before and never did again. That was the high tide of my life.
On my first visit, I wandered into the town’s Abbot Hall, the town hall incorporating a museum, and was taken aback to see the original Archibald McNeil Willard painting Spirit of ’76, which I never knew was there.
My main fascination was Old Burial Hill, which was established in 1638, making it one of the USA’s oldest cemeteries, if not the oldest. It contains a marble shaft at the grave of Captain James Mugford, a naval commander who captured the British ship Hope, which was carrying guns and powder, in 1775; he was killed in a British attack the following year. A main route in Marblehead is named for him.
I was fascinated with the oldest stones in the cemetery; with their death’s heads and hourglasses, they’re rather more severe than the relatively tame fare found in NYC-area cemeteries, though older ones like downtown Trinity and Prospect in Jamaica, Queens have their moments. I’ll show just a few here. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a return visit to Marblehead and New England sometime.
The wildest marker, probably the one the Old Burial Ground is known for, is that of Susanna Jayne, who died in 1776 with her tombstone carved by Henry Christian Geyer. It’s unusually shaped and was placed in a protective cement casing several decades ago. Here, a skeleton is holding the moon and the sun, wearing a laurel crown symbolic of victory; Death always wins. The skeleton holds a scythe and is encircled by an ouruboros, a snake eating its own tail, a symbol originating in Egyptian iconography and made its way to Greece and the rest of Europe, depicting infinity. At the top of the stone is an hourglass — sen frequently on ancient tombstones, symbolizing time running out — and a pair of bones. The plaque is flanked by the angels of heaven and the bats of hell.
Johannes’ Barnard’s stone is worded completely in Latin, with an unusual one-eyed skull. A number of stones in the Burial Ground are in Latin especially of doctors, scholars or lawyers.
Richard Hawley’s stone is one of two in the Burial Ground to show the family coat of arms. The most common way to display Death is a winged skull.
A spectacular skull adorns Susanna Orne’s marker along with some verse:
Tho Guilt & Folly tremble o’er the Dust
No Life can Charm no Death affright ye just
Tis ours Dear Shade to mourn thy Virtues gone
Thine to Enjoy the lasting Bliss they’ve won