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  • Writer's pictureJayne Lisbeth

Tombstones and Science

Halloween, Dios de las Muertas and all Hallows Eve fall between October 30 through November 2. This Food for Thought blog is a likely time to share my love of cemeteries, gravestone rubbing, and the respect for science and lives lived and departed through the ages.

My love of cemeteries began in Vermont, 1969. Since then, my love affair has grown. The congregation of stones, souls and confessions etched in epitaphs commands my utmost respect.

My favorite cemetery is the oldest I have visited, the Old Burying Ground in Salem, Massachusetts. To walk between the rows of these old stones is to walk backwards through hundreds of years of history. The deep silence is a testament to the sanctity of the ground accompanied with a symphony of breezes and the cadence of birdsong chorus.

I love the art of gravestone rubbing. Studying the stone, gently brushing away lichen and noticing the defects of age-worn words makes the message more sacred. Rubbing history onto rice paper is an act of tenderness borne by the stone beneath my fingertips. It is impossible to trace the etched memory from a gravestone without being connected to the life beneath my knees. I pay tribute to these carved words, warmed by the sun, seasons and years. The gravestone represents a life, someone beloved by the ghosts of memory. I often wonder who was the last family member to visit this grave? Dead and plastic flowers, fresh pots of mums, pansies or roses attest to a living relative somewhere.

In honor of this season I share some of my favorite gravestone rubbings. Following are the words carved upon stones, each bringing forth a mystery I long to unravel. The few gravestone rubbing photographs accompanying my story are difficult to read. Photographs do not do my rubbings justice. I have provided the messages from each stone verbatim, as well as some rubbings not pictured here. The old English spelling, using F for S is utilized as well as the differences in spelling from olde English to our current pronunciations and spelling of words. The following words are direct from each stone shown on some of the accompanying gravestone rubbing photographs:

Old Burying Ground, Salem, Massachusetts

“In memory of Mary the wife of Simeon Harvey who departed this life December 20th, 1785 in the 39th year of her age. On her left arm lieth the infant which was stillborn.” Amazingly, the stone carvers guidelines remain on Mary’s stone.

“Here lies buried the body of M. Hepziball Wells, Wife to Jonathan Wells, Esq. Died Augt 27 1697 in the 37 year of her life.”

“Nathan Mather, Decd Octoer ye 17 1688. An aged person that had been but nineteen winters in the World.”

“Memento Mori: In memory of Dear John Friend who departed this life Feby 25 1785 Aged 67 years. The Great lam his sommons sends and calls us to the Grave. Then like himself thunders allowed and calls us to the skies.”

“Here lyes the burd y body of Joseph Bernard Aged 45 years September 7 1695”

Hartland, Vermont Cemetery:

“In Memory of Mr. Thomas P. Rood who died October 10th AD 1795 A63. He moved to Hartland in the year 1762, one of the first settlers bore the brunt of a new uncultivated Wilderness. Lived to see 5 of his tender offspring taken by death one only left to see this stone. Behold and see as you pass by, As you are now so once was I. As I am now so you must be. Prepare your Salves to follow me.” From Hartland, Vermont Historical records and Wikipedia: “Thomas Park ROOD made the first settlement upon the farm now owned by his great-great-grandson, Melvin J. HOLT, where he built the second barn put up in the town. He died October 10, 1795, aged sixty-three years.”

“Nathan Mather Decd Octoer ye 17 1688. An aged person that had been but nineteen winters in the world.”

As I rub my wax over the words from each stone onto my rice paper I wonder over the lives buried beneath my knees. I imagine how different each outcome could have been with modern-day science and medical advances.

Would Mary, wife of Simeon Harvey, have died in childbirth in 1785 with her stillborn child had she labored in today’s era? Could she and her child have been saved with a Cesarean birth or modern drugs? Or a high forceps delivery? I have divots in my head attesting to my own birth’s circumstances in 1949, proof of my difficult delivery. ("That explains alot” Tim always says.) I survived my high-forceps delivery. How many did not?

M. Hepziball Wells, Wife to Jonathan Wells died at age 37 in 1697. What caused her death? A cold? A cut finger which bred infection throughout her body? If she were born in 1997 could she have lived longer than 37 years, with antibiotics? Surgery?

Nathan Mather died at the age of nineteen in 1688. What does his stone mean,“an aged person”? Aged at nineteen? Was he wise? Or aged early by injury, arthritis, debilitated through years of constant illness? Could his death have been prevented through anti-inflammatory drugs? Antibiotics?

Dear John Friend really touched my heart. Whoever carved this stone knew John as a dear friend. I have never seen a gravestone with the word “Dear” prior to the name. I believe this attests to the great love others felt for him in life and the sorrow of his passing. Who carved or paid for this expensive stone? A beloved? All his friends? One special friend? He lived a long life by 1785 standards. Today, thanks to the advances in science and medicine 67 is considered late middle age. In 2020 many enjoy lifetimes into their nineties and beyond.

Joseph Bernard: I have included the stone of Joseph Bernard to show the great differences in language between 1695 and today. It is also one of the most beautiful stones I was able to copy. The stone mason created an expensive work of art, leaving less money for each letter carved. Could this have resulted in the idiosyncrasies of shortened words, as in 'burd' for buried?

Mr. Thomas P. Rood, died “October 10th AD 1795 A63.” This stone is a fascinating witness to history, one of the first Vermont settlers who 'bore the brunt of a new uncultivated Wilderness.' I can only imagine the brutal back-breaking work of clearing the stony Vermont land, building a homestead from the forests, creating farms, barns and graveyards. Five of his children died leaving only one 'to see this stone.' How did his children die? A plague? The simple cold? Accidents? His stone is witness to a father’s suffering over the loss of five of his 'tender offspring.' His history and strength bear witness to settling a new world, a story carved in stone, proof beneath my fingertips. His ageless grief for his five lost children is a memorial to his life and the one left to 'see this stone.'


Covid 19 is not our first epidemic and fearful disease. The 1918 pandemic killed 675,000 Americans. President Woodrow Wilson downplayed the epidemic and never spoke of it publicly. Eventually, he was also infected. In my lifetime Polio was the disease which fueled our parent’s nightmares. The disease haunted homes, schools and neighborhoods. In 1952 alone, 57,879 Polio cases were reported, resulting in 3,145 deaths and 15,000 cases of paralysis. Images of children, row on row lined up in Polio wards were newspaper stories that kept the public informed and vigilant. No parent wanted to see their child encased in a coffin-like iron lung. Science intervened. Polio is not even a blip on our 2020 horizon thanks to scientist Jonas Salk and his Polio Vaccine, bred from test tubes and bacteria in a laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh in 1955.

My initiation with death was my father’s in 1958. His third and final heart attack was a thunderbolt which destroyed the edifice of my family and crushed the foundations of our lives. His death was swift. He was 49. It took me over thirty years to visit his grave and rub his stone.

In 1958 he could not have been saved. If his first heart attack had occurred in 1967 could science have prolonged his life? Enormous scientific and medical progress in heart disease has been accomplished since 1958. None of this was known when I watched my father shrouded and carried from my home at 4am, July 6, 1958. My mother would have continued her blissful existence by his side. I would have grown and learned from my father’s lessons. He could have met his grandchildren. I would have learned that he loved me, guided me, respected me.

In these uncertain times the only thing I am certain of is science. The old gravestones I have visited over many years tell their stories of life and death. The new graves of today will tell their tales to our future generations.

I create rubbings of old gravestones, never new ones. Between tombstones and science I respect both: those departed and the science which could have saved them. 2020 will be the haunted era of a pandemic in which some sadly did not share respect for tombstones or science.

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Nov 01, 2020

I enjoyed reading of your experiences going through the extremely old cemetery. Going through old cemeteries happens to be a thing I enjoy doing. I think the love of reading tombstones started when my wonderful old great grandfather passed away when I was 7 or 8 years old. He was buried in a large, old cemetery in Michigan, his burial spot was on a large hill, under beautiful, old trees a splendid spot! I loved going to the grave site with my grandparents, they would walk around with me and read the other grave markers, so interesting! We lived in Romulus, Michigan, a very small town just outside of Detroit, my visits were quite often to our cemetery there, lots…

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