Needham History Center & Museum Needham History Center & Museum, Needham Massachusetts 02492
 

Gone, but Not Forgotten…

“Around this monumental stone Let friendship drop a sacred tear;
The Husband kind the Parent fond, The upright man lies buried here”
Joseph Kingsbury 2d, died 1810, aged 58.

 

Visit the Cemetery! That’s what it’s there for, after all.

We like to keep the grim reminders of our mortality out of sight as much as possible, but in 1711 people knew that they were not here for long – life was often short, and Death was often unexpected.  They wanted to keep that fact in mind (especially since forgetting had dire consequences, Eternity-wise), but they also wanted to be remembered by their friends when they were gone. The Cemetery was right in the center of things, where people got together and visited with their friends, living and not.  It was an active part of the town’s social fabric.

From our point of view, the Needham Cemetery is on a smallish side street, but in its day it was right in our Downtown.  From 1711 until the 1870s, the center of town and the First Parish Church were at the intersection of Nehoiden Street and Central Avenue.  The cemetery lay beside the church, on Nehoiden Street.  The railroad brought about the shift to the Great Plain, but that’s a story for another day.

 

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Detail of gravestone of Mary Sugars Townsend, wife of the Rev. Jonathan Townsend, showing a guardian angel, a broken blossom (“all things must end”), and an image of Mary in her coffin.

 

The cemetery was the place where you got in your last word, literally written in stone.  Most epitaphs are pious reflections on the afterlife:  “An Angel’s Arm can’t snatch me from the Grave / Legions of Angels can’t confine me here” (Mary (Mrs Rev.) Townsend, died 1765, age 75).  “The sweet rememberance of the Just, Shall flourish when they sleep in dust” (Jemima Kingsbury, 1779, age 75).  Hopeful and comforting epitaphs like these reflected the community’s Christian belief.   Others are more creepy – “As you are now so once was I” (Sarah Fisher, 1775, age 58) was a popular choice, as was “How swift the shuttle flies that weaves thy Shroud” (Josiah Stedman, 1850, age 19).

Spelling was optional – Heir lise buread… (Aaron Dewing, 1750, age 19), or “Death is a debt to Natuer due…” (Ebenzer Fuller, 1777, age 43).  As was grammar – “The Richous hath hope in their Death” (Mary Richardson, 1777, age 65) and “Here lies one aged eightyone, / we have reason to think a happy life is began” (Elizabeth Fisher, 1824, age 81).  In a town full of farmers, agricultural references were common – “In a full age, like a shock of corn / Cometh in in his season” (George Fisher, 1845, age 80) and “Like a shock of corn, fully ripe” (John Burnham, 1869, age 71).  All falling before the scythe of Death, the Grim Reaper.

 

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Over time, there was a marked change in the images and words on gravestones.  The earliest ones, from the early 1700s, emphasized the certainty of death and the need to be ready to account for your soul at a moment’s notice.  These stones were decorated with skulls, crossed bones, flying hourglasses and other stark reminders.  By the mid-1700s, the winged skull was replaced by the winged cherub, emphasizing the hope of redemption over Dust-to-Dust.  By 1800, the images were more abstract and indirect – the urn and willow, traditional symbols of mourning, rather than the grinning skull.

 

fisher-eben

 

Gravestones were not cheap, and a custom-made stone even more expensive.  Most stones were probably pre-forms, already cut with an image and perhaps an epitaph, waiting only for [Your Name Here]. This is most likely true of the generic “As you are now so once was I” type.  Some, however, were personalized, such as the stone of Ebenezer Fisher (pictured above), that of Lt. Ephraim Ware (1820, age 61) – “He sustained the character of an honest man, a kind husband, a virtuous and useful citizen.  His property he mostly bequeathed to the support of the ministry in his native town”, or that of Timothy Broad, who died on his birthday – “My three score years and six just passed away, / and on my natal came my dying day” (Timothy Broad, 1811, age 66).

Some stones were clearly home-made, rough and simple.  Many others were probably made by a local craftsman such as the carpenter, as a sideline to his regular work.  Several are elegant and elaborate, and are the work of professional stonecutters.  The work of some of Boston’s famous stonecutters – the Geyer family, Daniel Hastings, Ebenezer Howard, the Fosters – is represented in Needham’s cemetery.

The oldest part of the cemetery is the half-circle bounded by the driveway.  The first recorded burial was of Edward Cook, who died in 1711 at the age of 72; his rough-hewn stone was still extant in the 20th century, but now seems to be lost.  The cemetery, now much expanded, continues in use, managed by the Needham Cemetery Association rather than the Parish.

So, on a crisp fall day, get into the Halloween spirit (ha!) and pay a visit to our Needham forebears in the Cemetery.

They’ll be expecting you.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum

For even more ghostly fun, see Haunted Needham !

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The gravestone of Lt. John Bowen of Roxbury shows the deceased as a risen soul, complete with powdered wig and brass-buttoned coat.