As the Town of Reading celebrates it 375th birthday, now is a good time to pause and reflect on those things that have been here the longest. As in any New England town, it is the cemeteries, burying grounds, graveyards and gravestones themselves that bear silent witness to the years. Reading is no different - even as its boundaries have changed over time, even as trees, plants, people, and structures have come and gone - markers and gravestones remain and have lots to tell us. As the oldest extant cemetery in Reading proper, Laurel Hill Cemetery in the center of the Town is the obvious place to go to learn something about those who came before. Visitors to Reading can discover interesting and fascinating things about local and American history, just by “reading” the centuries of gravestones and memorials erected at Laurel Hill. Instead of focusing on the notables (e.g. important or celebrated people) beneath the ground, we shall examine the gravestones, monuments and memorials erected above.
The oldest part of what is now known as Laurel Hill Cemetery was originally known as the Burying Ground. Every town in New England had its own “Burying Ground,” or graveyard. Interring townsfolk was a practical necessity, not an occasion for purchasing a lot and decorating it with lavish, elaborate memorials. No, Reading’s early inhabitants were practical rural folk, and they observed the usual customs of interring their family members in rows, with burial sites marked by slate stones. While historians have closely examined eighteenth-century carver work in the old Wakefield and Stoneham burying grounds, the stonecutters and their work represented by the handsome slates in Reading’s Old Burying Ground/Laurel Hill Cemetery have been largely overlooked
Cemetery Consecrated in 1737
The earliest burial in Reading’s old burying ground was that of Nathaniel Parker, who died in 1737. Until that time, burials of Reading citizens had largely taken place in a more Southerly part of Reading, modern-day Wakefield, in what is still known as the “Old Burial Ground” in that town (Reading’s boundaries history is long and complicated, but any number of excellent articles or books about the Town’s history can explain this in detail). When Wakefield’s Old Burial Ground became too far for some of Reading’s more far-flung residents to easily or conveniently bury their loved ones (remember these are practical citizens with limited resources), a second, newer burying ground was created, in what is now the center of Reading.
Reading citizens, however, continued to patronize the same skilled stonecutters that many of their family members and forefathers had used. Nathaniel Parker’s stone is a handsome one, made from a beautiful piece of slate, likely carved by second generation carvers in the celebrated Lamson family shop of Charlestown. The shape of the headstone is the common one found throughout New England during the Colonial period—a rounded slab, the “tympanum” which contains the main motif, with two “shoulders,” the two sides that often display a decorative border. Slate is a metamorphic rock that can only be used in sheets or slab form—for example, chalkboards or roofing tiles. The motif on Nathaniel Parker’s stone (photo below) is the most common of the period, the winged skull or “memento mori”—a reminder that all must die. The “hooks” at the end of the skull’s eyebrows and the lip-like shape above the teeth are clues that the stone was carved in the Lamson shop—these devices are specific to the Lamson carvers. Other slate stones in the Old Burying Ground section of Laurel Hill Cemetery that also display these Lamson devices include those for Caleb Parker (died 1742), Abigail Bancroft (died 1750), and many others.
Based on visual examination (with significant help from noted Colonial gravestone scholar Laurel Gabel), other eighteenth century carvers represented at Laurel Hill Cemetery include John Dwight and his stepson Abel Moors, and possibly carvers who admired and copied their style. Most eighteenth century gravestones were the product of workshops where the labor of several men went into the production of each gravestone—the “dresser,” the polisher/smoother, and of course, the carver; sometimes the carving itself was done by different masons, one managing the lettering, another focusing on the decorative elements. Abel Moors was almost certainly the main carver for Susanna Wakefield’s gravestone (died 1791), while his stepfather John Dwight was probably the lead or main carver for the gravestone of the children of Jeremiah and Susan Bancroft (died 1796 and 1800), for the 1797 gravestone of Abigail Parker, and either Dwight or Moors, or both men, were responsible for the charming “portrait” stone of little Edwin Parker (died 1801).
The eighteenth century saw a number of religious revivals and upheavals, although the actual impact of these on Colonial society as a whole is contested still by historians. Nevertheless, changes in religious beliefs, especially in matters concerning the afterlife, were reflected in the changing motifs on slate gravestones. The motif on Susanna Wakefield’s gravestone reflects one of these changes: instead of a winged skull, her motif features a winged cherub’s head, a softer, sweeter version of the winged skull. Gradually over the decades between the mid eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century, urban styles trickled out to the surrounding countryside.
In Reading, as in other New England towns, winged cherubs gave way to more sentimental motifs such as willows and urns, referencing classical architectural elements that were prevalent in the decorative arts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when neoclassical styles (known under different terms, but “Federal” and “Greek Revival” cover much of this period) ruled the roost. High style furniture sported columns and chair “splats” in the shape of Greek urns, while townhouses on Boston’s Beacon Hill were built with marble stairs and columns. The interest and admiration of neoclassical design is reflected on slate gravestones in Reading that reference columns, urns, and other decorative motifs.
Rise of Cemeteries as Parks
The creation of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge in 1831 ushered a new type of burial landscape in America: picturesque, manicured parklike grounds with “natural” features such as hills and dells, ponds, trees and masses of plantings. These “rural” or “garden” cemeteries, as they were known, featured winding paths that encouraged walking at the cemetery for melancholy reflection, or for fresh air and enjoyment. The rural cemetery style spread across American cities (with particularly famous examples in New York and Philadelphia), and gradually to smaller towns. This phenomenon also occurred in Reading, when the Old Burial Ground was substantially added to and enlarged in the mid-nineteenth century. You can see the difference between the “old” section (towards the front) with its rows of slate gravestones lined up, and the newer (much larger) section, with winding paths, hills, terracing (different levels) for visual and landscape interest, and although somewhat diminished now, still many areas of plantings, and of course trees.
Besides the radically different landscape in the newer areas of Laurel Hill Cemetery, the other major aesthetic clue that signals this transition is the use of white marble for many of the funerary monuments. White marble became the fashionable, tasteful medium for gravestones and monuments in nineteenth century America.
The reasons for the interest in white marble are many, and they are intertwined. Stonecutters in New England had begun using it as early as the late eighteenth century, when quarries were developed in Vermont and along what was known as the “Marble Border” in Western Massachusetts and further South. By eighteenth century standards these were large operations, employing the latest technologies and offering steady year-round employment to masons. Year-round employment was a rare luxury for rural stonecutters, who if they were self-employed oftentimes only carved in the warmer months, focusing on other trades that could be performed indoors in the colder months, such as carpentry. City stonecutters had been importing Carrara marble from Italy since the late eighteenth century, but this import was expensive and reserved for wealthy customers. The influx of cheaper, domestic marble changed that equation and helped to make white marble the standard monument material during the nineteenth century for most Americans in urban areas, and in rural areas.
Aesthetically, white marble was pleasing to the eye. The marble monuments we see today on Laurel Hill’s landscape appear “dirty” and often are deteriorated or broken. However, when newly installed, a white marble monument sparkled and glistened in the sun and against the greenery of the grounds; monuments seemed to “glow” at dusk. White marble provided a visual affirmation and anticipation of a heavenly reunion for beloved family members and friends in the afterlife. A significant few marble graves of Civil War Veterans at Laurel Hill have recently been restored.
Marble was also a much more versatile material than slate. Whereas slate is a material that can only be shaped into slabs, marble’s different geological profile can be carved “in the round,” and shaped in a variety of ways. A new appreciation for classical sculpture also developed in America around the 1830s and 1840s. This appreciation was inspired by a generation of American sculptors who sought professional training in Italy, and whose work was based on ancient Greek, Roman and Renaissance sculpture, where white marble was the preferred medium. The influx of a new vocabulary of designs and motifs, the nearly endless shaping possibilities and the availability of affordable domestic white marble, all contributed to the explosion of a white marble monument industry in the nineteenth century, particularly in the Northeast.
Paved roads, and later, railroads, allowed for the transport of large quantities of stone over long distances. Stonecutters were not limited to moving stone over water or locally over rutted roads. Instead of small workshops, they now became businessmen with showrooms of monuments. Discerning customers could now choose from a plethora of possibilities of shapes and motifs, and cemeteries such as Laurel Hill became increasingly dotted with monuments in all shapes and sizes, decorated with carved flowers, botanical motifs such as ivy and oak, bibles, crosses, Civil War motifs, as well as portrait sculpture. The elaborate Jenny Greenwood monument at Laurel Hill Cemetery (above right) which memorializes 11-year-old Jenny embodies many of the most popular design motifs of nineteenth century garden cemeteries, encompassing and touching on floral, botanical, figural, and architectural shapes and elements, while family members’ gravestones nearby are more diminutive but also display elegant carved botanical motifs.
Decline of Marble
Despite its popularity, white marble did not survive well outdoors in the New England climate over time, and by the late nineteenth century was falling out of favor in cemeteries. Another turn in gravestone material occurred around the same time, when the development of pneumatic and power tools allowed for new ways to quarry and carve granite, one of the hardest substances known to man. Granite quarries in Vermont, Maine, and Quincy, Massachusetts were some of the most productive granite quarries. Pneumatic tools allowed for fine detail carving in granite, so the uses of granite began to extend well beyond their building, curbing and hitching posts uses of previous centuries.
Granite stones of all colors (depending on the quarry), which could take (and hold, which marble could not do outdoors) a high polish, or remain equally handsome in a matte finish, became the most sought-after monument material in most American urban cemeteries and beyond, and remains the go-to material for most monument buyers today. Again, this transition is reflected at Laurel Hill Cemetery, with any number of nineteenth and twentieth century monuments in various forms and finishes—some highly polished, some left in a more natural state, such as Horace Wadlin’s monument, a naturally-shaped granite with a simple bronze plaque announcing “Wadlin.”
Laurel Hill Cemetery is not just a collection of famous or lesser-known names, of women and men who lived exemplary or extraordinary lives, who died young, or who died in battle. It is also, to the visitor who walks among the gravestones or along the paths, a narrative of American history, technology, religion, economy, fashion, art and aesthetics, design, war, life and death—in short, all the things that make us humans who see, feel, grieve, celebrate, and live our lives. It is a place of history and it has many stories to tell, if we just pay attention.
Elise M. Ciregna, PhD is a gravestone and cemetery historian and scholar. She is President Emeritus of the Association for Gravestone Studies and was the editor of the Association’s scholarly journal Markers for many years. In Reading, she served on the Board of Cemetery Trustees for over ten years and as its President for four - and remains an advisor to the Board. Previously Curator at Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston; she currently teaches courses on cultural heritage protection at Harvard University’s Extension School. Dr. Ciregna is working on a book about white marble funerary monuments in America, 1760-1860, based on her dissertation.