Life lessons: digging into Plymouth history on Burial Hill
By: Patricia Harris | Globe correspondent
November 09, 2013
PLYMOUTH On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Donna Curtin motioned for the crowd at the top of Burial Hill to gather around her. We have a very sophisticated sound system, she said with a laugh. Its called bellowing.
Curtin, executive director of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, was about to begin a tour of some of the timeworn yet still evocative gravestones that hold so many keys to Plymouths past. These grave markers and the lives and experiences they represent are the gateway into the history of our town, she said. This hill is part of our ongoing Plymouth community.
Its hard to imagine any other place more central to Plymouth history. The Pilgrims built their first fort and meetinghouse on this high point of ground with commanding views of land and sea. Near the end of the 17th century they made it the towns primary burial ground. Burial Hill is such a treasure trove of history that the Antiquarian Society, which studies life in Plymouth after the Pilgrims, plans to offer a free monthly tour (except in January) through 2020, the towns 400th anniversary year. With more than 2,150 gravestones, Curtin is confident that she and other specialists will have more than enough material to keep them going.
Burial Hills meandering paths, old trees, and even older stones make it one of the most beautiful spots in town, and following Curtin from grave to grave was a lesson in historic scholarship and human nature alike. As she instructed us in the evolution of gravestone carving styles, she also read the imagery to decipher changing attitudes about death and life. Gossipy anecdotes gleaned from her research into historic documents helped to bring the deceased back to life, if only for a moment. Their cares and concerns, it seemed, were not unlike our own.
The earliest existing gravestone at Burial Hill dates to 1681, but Curtin started at the marker for Mary Rickard who died in 1712 at 55. Very little is known about women, said Curtin, but we do know that three of her grandparents were Mayflower passengers. She would have known and spoken with the first settlers. The purplish slate stone features a winged skull or deaths head, a common early motif. Its a reminder of mortality, said Curtin, to tell the living that they need to start on the road to salvation.
As life got a little easier, the deaths head often morphed into a winged cherub. Some provincial carvers developed their own way of depicting the soul, said Curtin. Some of them were really freaky. By way of illustration she led us to the grave of Hannah Cotton, who died in 1756 at 69. These google-eyed lightbulbs with electrified hair were called medusas, she said as she pointed to the image on the top of Cottons stone. There are a lot of them in the cemetery. But the condition of the fragile stones is an ongoing concern and Curtin noted that the Plymouth Town Meeting recently approved $550,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for conservation efforts.
The medusas are indeed rather freaky. But some of the most fascinating stones have more individualized and wistful portraits. Patience Watson, for example, was a member of one of Plymouths wealthiest families. After her death in 1767 (in the 34th year of her age), her husband hired an accomplished carver in Boston to create her stone. The image of a lovely young woman in a tight-waisted gown with a locket around her neck is not necessarily Watsons true likeness. It was a symbol of her taste, style, and status, said Curtin. It says I was somebody in life, I was a lady.
Lovely as Watsons image may be, the man of the house always got the most important stone. William Rider, for example, who died in 1772 (in the 49th year of his age), was memorialized by William Coye (1750-1816), the father of the Plymouth carving tradition. After studying in Providence, Coye moved to Plymouth to become the towns first resident carver. For Riders gravestone, he created a portrait of a man with a turban wrapped around his head. The image often puzzles contemporary viewers. Men always wore itchy, scratchy wigs when they were out of the house, said Curtin, explaining that the men also shaved their heads. They took off the wigs in the privacy of their homes and would don a turban if their heads got chilly. Its nice to see that Rider chose comfort over style for the afterlife.
Elezer Holmes, who died in 1798 at 84, apparently did not heed the warnings of the deaths heads on earlier graves. Beneath a fairly common image of a medusa, Holmes confesses that I lived a long life /in devious paths I trod /and lived alas forgetful of my god. Murmurs flew as our group speculated on Holmess transgressions. This is one of the stories that we would like to know more about, said Curtin.
Many scholars find 19th-century gravestone imagery to be less interesting than earlier styles. But some stones still speak powerfully of history and of personal loss. To conclude the tour, Curtin brought us to the memorial for Richard Holmes, who drowned in 1828 when his ship capsized in the Pacific. He was 22. The tall piece of slate was from the workshop of Plymouth-born John Tribble (1782-1862), which created almost one quarter of the stones on Burial Hill. Holmess memorial features a small but unflinching image of an angel with trumpet floating above an overturned ships keel. We can see the ocean from up here, said Curtin. Families here understood the risk of going to sea. This is emotional, but comforting for families who saw their sons go off to sea and never come back.
One of the group asked Curtin if Holmes might have been on a whaling ship. Its another story that we have to investigate, she said, clearly relishing the task.
BURIAL HILL TOURS Held the first Saturday of every month except January. The free tours start at 1 p.m. and meet at the main stairway to Burial Hill next to the First Parish Church on Town Square, Plymouth. The Dec. 7 tour will feature Christmas tales and traditions. Plymouth Antiquarian Society, 508-746-0012, www.plymouthantiquariansociety.org.
Patricia Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.