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Gravestones and Childhood [Artifacts]


In 17th-century New England, Puritan beliefs about "infant depravity" (born with "original sin") generated anxieties about "eternal damnation" that shaped methods of childrearing and notions of death. Puritan beliefs can be "read" on the gravestones often made out of dark grey slate. The standard three-lobed shape of early Puritan gravestones reflected the belief that to enter eternity the soul passed through arches and portals. The primary motifs included skulls (winged "death's heads"), skeletons, hourglasses, bones, scythes, and coffins. Upper-case lettering lent authority to bold inscriptions. Ligatures (e.g., combining letters into words) saved space. Stone carvers used abbreviations and raised letters especially at the far right margin to make words fit on to a line.

By the early 18th century Enlightenment ideas about children's innocence, natural impulses, and malleability impacted perceptions of children and methods of child rearing. In addition to the changing material culture of children's lives, were varying modes of representing death.

Steadily (albeit unevenly) over the course of the 18th century, there were significant changes in the shape, height, design, inscription, and composition (e.g., sandstone) of tombstones. The hand-carved death's skulls were increasingly replaced by winged faces representing resurrection and ever-lasting life. Smiling angels, sentimentalized urns, winged cherubs, and natural objects (birds, fruit, willows) were carved on the gravestones of children whose lives were cut short. Inscriptions gradually changed from the stark Puritan style, "HERE LYETH YE BODY OF" to "In Memory of." In that semantic shift, "lyeth" became "lyes" and finally, "lies." Ligatures gave way to unabbreviated words, verse, and Biblical quotations inscribed in upper and lower case with a liberal use of the elongated "S."

Compare this gravestone to those from the 17th century as well as later ones using the on-line Farber Gravestone Collection. In what ways does Sarah Sanford's 1722 slate (21 inch) gravestone from Newport, Rhode Island, reflect the transition between Puritan notions and Enlightenment ideals of childhood? How does the line ("mouthmark") above the skull's teeth change the expression of the death's head? In what ways does the placement of the skull's teeth make them look more like a neck decoration?


"Sanford, Sarah," The Farber Gravestone Collection: American Antiquarian Society,,Sarah?sort=Name%2CDates&qvq=q:Sanford;sort:Name,Dates;lc:FBC~100~1&mi=0&trs=2 (accessed November 8, 2009). Annotated by Miriam Forman-Brunell.

How to Cite This Source

"Gravestones and Childhood [Artifacts]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #342, (accessed January 16, 2022).