The spooky and the sacred: gravestone art

By Gabel Strickland, Staff Writer

Nothing gets someone in the Halloween spirit quite like a visit to a graveyard, where even more haunting than the graves at your feet are the images etched onto the scattered stones. But the skulls, bones, and urns carved into gravestones are more than just spooky symbols—they say a lot about society’s philosophies surrounding life and death.

“Each land of the dead communicates what the land of the living is doing,” said Gravestone Girls Co-Founder Brenda Sullivan.

Sullivan is one of the three founding members of Gravestone Girls, a business dedicated to teaching the history of gravestone iconography and the art of gravestone rubbing. Since visiting her family graveyard weekly with her family as a child, gravestones have remained one of Sulllivan’s lifelong interests. 

“I spent all my time playing in there and rubbing gravestones and reading them,” Sullivan said. “They were never scary places. They were always fun and interesting, and I’ve always liked the old colonial imagery associated with them.”

Sullivan understands the aesthetic value of gravestone skeletons, urns, and other eerie symbols—Gravestone Girls is known for replicating gravestone decorations throughout Massachusetts, turning them into castings, magnets, pinboards, and other oddities for purchase. Each item has a history tag with information on the grave and its images that emphasizes the history of its engravings. 

The most common symbol on gravestones in Boston’s famous burial grounds is a “death’s head”: a skull with wings on either side of it. According to the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, these “death’s heads” were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and are often accompanied by bones and skeletons featured on the edges of the tombstone. 

Sometimes, these death’s heads were replaced with winged cherubs or a soul effigies, which have the same design  except with a human face instead of a skull. They were meant to more closely resemble actual humans. Rooted in fear, these images originally gave a different scare than they do today as Halloween icons.  

“The colonials were very steeped in religion, superstition, and rigid adherence to the interpretations of the Bible,” Sullivan said. “It is absolutely meant to be a startling, brutal type of imagery to get folks to correct their behavior and ensure they’re doing the work that’s going to get their soul off to the next world upon their death.” 

Such a symbol might be considered too morbid for modern sensibilities, but therein lies the point—this artwork so uniquely preserves the fears and philosophies of its time. 

“The way we look at the colonial tombstones with their scary images and are like ‘Ugh, that’s so dark. Why would somebody do that?’ Well, if you got up every day with the promise that you might be here for breakfast, but not for lunch, you’re very, very aware of your mortality,” Sullivan said.

Urns and willows are common symbols found on gravestones dating to the 19th century. Urns in particular used to symbolize societies then-reverence of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. 

“We’ve got the American Revolution that happens at the end of the 1700s,” Sullivan said. “The founding fathers are looking for ideology to base the new nation on. They look at the Greeks and the Romans as the founders of the concepts of democracy. And it also translates into the iconography found on the tombstones of the time.” 

But death being a bridge into a new life is a timeless theme of gravestone iconography. Of the various symbols found on gravestones across Boston, many of them revisit this idea. In Central Burying Ground located in the Boston Common, one gravestone is topped with the image of a sun. As Sullivan explains, the sun on the horizon represents the sun setting on one life with the promising of rising on the next.  

”Many societies dating back tens of thousands of years consistently nod to the idea that this is not the one and only stop, there is more to come after this,” Sullivan continued. “So you see suns and you see stars, moons, hour glasses, and Latin phrases and you see other phrases in the 19th century: ‘gone but not forgotten,’ or ‘gone home.’” 

Alex Sauvery, a junior at Emerson, says when they visit gravestones they have an appreciation not just for this symbolism, but for what it says about a person’s legacy. 

“I always see the symbols and I connect to the dark beauty they have,” Sauvery said. “It’s to convey the connection between the living and the dead. The impact that they left on the people, the lives they touched. Those symbols that you see on the graves, it’s almost like its own language.” 

Sullivan is constantly reminded that these symbols have deeper meanings for people whose family members are buried beneath them. For them, this artwork declares that their family members’ memories live on. These families sometimes commission Sullivan to recreate the gravestone artwork of their loved one. 

“It’s not terribly uncommon for somebody to come into my booth at an art market and say I’ve got their ancestor on the table,” Sullivan said. “That’s really great when that happens… There’s that connection made as well.” 

Athena Parkman, a sophomore at Emerson, is one such person with familial ties to these graveyards. Parkman grew up in Massachusetts, and has family members buried in Arlington. She says seeing these symbols on her family members’ graves makes her emotional. 

“Every time I visit them, I always get this flood of memories and this deep connection that they’ll always be with me even though they’re far right now… it really gives me assurance,” she said. “You get a glimpse of the people that are still living and connect with the people that they unfortunately lost. It’s those moments that you’re like ‘this is how I remember you, this really fits you. This fits our family.’ This represents more than just a block of stone on top of grass.” 

Because these symbols hold so much significance, it’s important to preserve them. Visitors to graveyards should be careful not to damage the stones, refraining from sitting on or touching them.

“You know how many times I chase people off of stones? We tend to think ‘Oh, well, they’re made out of stone and stone is indestructible,’” Sullivan said. “Really nothing could be farther from the truth. Go in there and you go in with respect.” 

For most people, graveyard-strolling might be an activity only reserved for Halloween. But to Sullivan, Halloween is year-round, and to many, these icons’ significance is everlasting.