Presentation Notes: 2004-2005

Old Colonial Gravestones before 1800 in Barnstable County

Presented by Bob Carlson

Presentation Notes by Eleanor Darby

Bob, a CCGS member, began several years ago after retiring to the Cape, photographing the art work on the old slate tombstones in the cemeteries on the Cape. He has in the intervening years photographed all the remaining slate stones in all the cemeteries on Cape Cod-Barnstable County - and he has a website which includes 17th, 18th and 19th century tombstones of Barnstable County. His talk today deals with the early period.

The tombstones of the 1600s were usually rocks placed on the grave with a few having carving on them. Most burials were unmarked. The earliest stones extant are from the early 1700s and have a particular style of carving that was popular until approximately the mid-century. This consisted of a skull with down-turned wings on the tympanum of the tombstone-the skull signifying death and the wings the faint hope of the soul rising out of the grave to heaven, a philosophy closely related to the religious beliefs of the times.

By the mid 1700s the skulls began to look less grim and the wings began to be turned up at the tips as if in flight. As time progressed the skull and wings were no longer attached to the top of the tombstone but were higher up on the tympanum as if actually in flight. This also reflected the more hopeful religious beliefs of the times! Decorative borders around the carved wording were of vines or flowers.

In addition, an hourglass was sometimes included as were crossed bones and even the flames of hell were depicted. The decorative borders were used less as time went on and by the late 1700 the skulls were more often heads with features and hair with wings attached and in flight, again reflecting changing religious attitudes. There are even portrait carvings on a few tombstones. There were families of carvers whose artistic techniques are very apparent on the stones they created.

The slate stones were used until about the early 1800s when marble became popular and the quality of the slate could be very different-the better quality surviving to the present with still clear carvings. The most tragic fact is that so many of these stones have been damaged and broken or have totally disappeared.

[Update: Bob's site,, now contains information on gravestones dated up to 1880 from Cape Cod (Barnstable County), Massachusetts. It includes over 130 cemeteries, 35000 names, 4000 photographs, 800 epitaphs and stone carver information.]

See the Presentation Notes Index for summaries of other presentations given at the Society's monthly meetings.