The first gravestones in Connecticut were in the “plain” style. The carving consisted of only brief facts about the deceased, with no decoration. The stone for Richard Edwards (Walking Tour No. 10) is an example by an unknown carver of this style, which provided little room for artistic creativity.
Imagery began to appear on Connecticut gravestones late in the 1600s. Stones from this era feature hollow-eyed, grimacing skulls flanked by bat-like wings. These “death¹s heads” are believed to reflect Puritanism¹s grim attitude toward human mortality, emphasizing the specter of death and the decay of the flesh. The marker for Phenias Willson (Walking Tour No. 7), attributed to James Stanclift of Portland, Connecticut, is one of the earliest Connecticut gravestones to depict a skull.
Beginning around 1730, death’s heads became more “human” in appearance, more sophisticated in design and execution. The fearsome expression gradually softened into a sober, even smiling one. These “angel’s heads” are believed to symbolize the soul’s flight to heaven, emphasizing the blissful life everlasting that awaited the righteous. In these stones the individual carver’s artistry becomes evident. Each man started with the same symbolic image, then endered it in his own personal, distinctive style, as demonstrated by the stones for Captain Israel Seymour, by Aaron Haskins of Bolton, Connecticut (Walking Tour No. 8); for Richard Bernham, by Gershom Bartlett of Bolton (Walking Tour No. 9); and for Ebenezer Watson, by Thomas Johnson III of Middletown (Walking Tour No. 6).
Around 1800 angel’s heads were displaced by imagery that included urns and weeping willows or by obelisks like the one attributed to stonecutter Isaac Sweetland of Hartford for Jeremiah Wadsworth (Walking Tour No. 3). These neoclassical forms reflected the young United States’ identification with the grandeur and nobility of the ancient Greek and Roman republics, as well as a decline in the influence of religion in New England.
A few dedicated craftsmen continue the gravestone carver’s tradition. Two dozen stones in the Ancient Burying Ground decayed beyond repair have been replaced with replicas, based on photographs and comparison with other stones by the same carver. One of the finest is that for Ebenezer Watson (Walking Tour No. 6) by Allen Williams of Chester Granite Company in Otis, Massachusetts. The black slate marker memorializing African Americans interred in the Ancient Burying Ground (Walking Tour No. 2), carved by Nick Benson of the John Stevens shop of Newport, Rhode Island, was modeled after gravestones made for and by Newport’s eighteenth- century African Americans.