Feature Story

A Headstone in Arlington

In the self-guided tour1 of St. James Cemetery in Arlington, Vermont we discover:

The founders of the town of Arlington were members of the King’s army, which came from Connecticut to fight against the French in the north in what was known as the French and Indian War. On their return they camped along the Battenkill (River) in the vicinity of what was to become Arlington.

In 1749 the King of England authorized Benning Wentworth to sell land in what was named the New Hampshire grants in order to populate the area to keep the French out. Israel Canfield and some of the men in the army who camped here took advantage of the grants and moved their families to the area and the town of Arlington was incorporated in 1761.

Many of the founding families are buried here in the St. James Cemetery. The land for the cemetery was donated by Gamliel Deming who bought the confiscated land of Jehiel Hawley whose “treasonous acts” caused him to leave for Canada.

Walking in the front gate is near dumbfounding. You are met with row upon row of Revolutionary War era headstones, exquisitely hand carved Death’s Heads and Memento Mori, early Victorian symbols of flora, fauna, mortality, Christianity, and secret societies. You realize that the first stone in front of you is that of Mary Lyon, buried in 1784, and whose husband, Matthew, was the Irish-born American printer, farmer, soldier, and politician who served in the United States House of Representatives from both Vermont and Kentucky. Matthew was also jailed on charges of violating the Sedition Act, winning re-election to Congress from inside his jail cell. Mary is in good company; Ethan Allen’s wife Mary Brownson rests nearby.

Stone after stone, symbol after symbol catches your eye. Obelisk, spire, rose, wreath, shield, urn, Masonic, finger pointing up, they are all here.

A particularly spectacular headstone is that of Betty Burton Canfield. Her inscription reads: Betty, widow of Nathan Canfield Esq., died Sept. 26, 1831, in the 70th year of her age. Her epitaph reads: Her hope was full of immortality. This phrase appears in many theological writings and obituaries of the early 1800s. Further research leads to the original writing which is in the Wisdom of Solomon. The Wisdom of Solomon is one of 15 books in the apocrypha. The apocrypha was a selection of books which were published in the original 1611 King James Bible. These apocryphal books were positioned between the Old and New Testament (it also contained maps and genealogies). The apocrypha was part of the King James Bible until being removed in 1885. When Betty picked up her bible each day, there, in the middle of Genesis, Exodus, Matthew, Mark and John was the Wisdom of Solomon which apparently caught her eye.

At first glance, Betty’s headstone is a 6 foot tall, 2 inch thick, rectangular slab made of marble. Headstones in this era were quarried and carved not far from their present location by local stonecutters. Gravestone carving was usually a second, part-time occupation of stonemasons and other craftsmen, although some carvers supported themselves entirely with this work. We are lucky to find inscribed at the bottom of Betty’s headstone that the carvers were T. & W. Brown.

The article, Early American Gravestones2, helps us further explore the style of Betty’s headstone:

The shape of the stones standing at the head and foot of colonial graves suggests the headboard and footboard of a bed. Their shape also suggests the arches and portals that, through death, the Puritans believed the soul must pass to enter eternity. The headstone’s rounded tympanum is flanked on each side by rounded shoulders, or finials. The inscribed tablet under the tympanum is usually bordered with decorative carving on two, three, and sometimes all four sides. The tympanum and shoulders are nearly always decorated.

This basic tripartite or three-lobed shape was by far the most popular of those used in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The older the yard, the more this style dominated.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, variations on the old shape and many new, innovative shapes began to outnumber the basic, three-lobed gravestone pattern. There were tympanums without the flanking round shoulders; tympanums and shoulders elaborately embellished with bulges and curves and points; and any shape that was a particular carver’s personal, artistic variation on the basic shape. The transition in shape was accompanied by an increase in height.

Then came a significant style change, the result of a great neoclassical revival imported from Europe. By 1800, almost every burial ground reflected a move from the Puritan religious spirit to an enthusiasm for classical antiquity. Compared to the squat, thick, three-lobed markers of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and the more elaborate later-eighteenth-century markers, the gravestones produced in the early nineteenth century are simpler in design, more finished and sleek in appearance, taller and more uniform in shape. Gone are the rounded shoulders and the innovative embellishments. A clean-cut, rounded tympanum now surmounts a simple rectangular tablet. The width of the tablet extends beyond the base of the tympanum on either side, giving the marker the appearance of having squared-off shoulders.

Betty was buried in 1831 and her headstone style falls right into this turn-of-the-century transition. Now let’s take a look at the rich symbolism3 which adorns Betty’s grave. Starting at the top and working our way down, we see:

1. Weeping Willow: Extreme grief and sorrow; is often shown alone or with an urn under the tree.
2. Lamps: These 3 lamps represent resurrection, light, and the eternal flame dispelling darkness.
3. Unknown flowers: Do you know?
4. Hex, or 6 petal garlic flowers: These 2 flower-like symbols on the shoulders are a hex symbol for protection against evil.
5. Arch and Columns: The arch represents being rejoined with a partner in heaven, or a doorway to heaven. The columns are mortality and mourning.
6. Oval tablet with her inscription.
7. Drapery and veil: They signify the last partition between life and deasth, or the passage from one life to another.
8. Vines: Symbol of the relationship of God and man.
9. Unknown flower: Do you know?
10. Oval tablet with her epitaph.
11. Grapes in a vase: Grapes represent the Eucharistic wine, symbol of the blood of Christ.

Betty Burton Canfield is one of 71 burials in St. James by the name of Canfield. Dorothy Canfield Fisher is another. Presumably, Dorothy's short story, Memorial Day May 30, 1913, is drawn around St. James. It opens with: Anyone watching from the cemetery could have seen the distant little cloud of dust in the valley which announced the approach of the first car.

St. James has 300 headstones. Betty's is one. The other 299 are just as fascinating.

Barry Trutor, VOCA member

(1) Historic St. James Cemetery, Arlington, Vermont, A Self Guided Tour, Garry Roosma, Tour Guide Compiler
(2) Early American Gravestones: Introduction to the Farber Gravestone Collection, Jessie Lie Farber, Copyright 2003 American Antiquarian Society
(3) Our History In Stone: The New England Cemetery Dictionary, Christina Enriquez, Copyright 2009 Sinematix