Excerpt from review by
in The Underhill Review
“In what is an amazingly researched, crafted and quite beautifully presented work simply crammed with visual evidence and accompanied by a CD-Rom incorporating additional images and a searchable databases for the use (one imagines) of genealogists, Blachowicz regards graveyards as, in effect, ‘outdoor museums’ for an underappreciated aspect of the American craft tradition. Yet in fact, as anyone who has explored cemeteries knows, they are social documents in their own right, ones through which can be traced the development of a community, its social structures, its shifting concerns – whether these be the unwelcome attention of body-snatchers or the state of the departed soul. Blachowicz’s focus is not on the rural cemetery, which served a different purpose, but on individual burial grounds in Plymouth, Kingston, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. One of the most striking aspects he highlights of death in the early republic was the uniformity of its representation: in a pre-industrial age, where uniformity was of no practical or commercial value, the symbolism of death was nevertheless remarkably consistent and constant, suggesting a shared understanding of death, it rituals, and its representation.
Over time, however, this symbolism changed, with the more overt memento mori of the skull, the hourglass, even the skeletal figure of death itself being replaced by cherubs, usually winged, or naďve portraits of the departed, which in turn gave way to what became the dominant death motif, the willow and urn, or tomb, frequently, though not invariably, with a female figure leaning on it. Where the earliest images were, Blachowicz notes, ‘designed to remind passersby of their own mortality as well as the judgment and possible punishment to come,’ over time the ‘fear of retribution and sense of sinfulness’ became ‘an assurance of salvation and reward.’ The intermediate stage of the winged cherub pointed to the soul’s ascension to another world, but the willow and urn were ‘symbolic of what is left behind.’ This ‘secularization of religious consciousness,’ ultimately expressed in the willow and urn motif, replaced the injunction ‘Remember Death’ to the plea ‘Remember Me.’
By the period of the Civil War, in effect, the ‘Good Death,’ certainly as commemorated beyond the rural cemetery, was expressed in memorials and monuments to the departed; cemeteries, the ‘dormitories of the dead’ (the etymological root of cemetery being a ‘sleeping place’ or dormitory) replaced burial grounds, and the afterlife itself ‘more and more resembled a secular Elysium than a Christian heaven entered after a final accounting.’ This message was reinforced in the rural cemeteries, which expressly forbade the use of black slate markers with their too obvious overtones of corruption and death; a new ‘psychological attachment to the whiteness of marble’ signified that the idea of judgment had ‘ceded more and more to a kind of Unitarian natural theology of which the rural cemetery was itself a symbol.’ In short, whether perusing the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger or promenading through a cemetery, antebellum Americans could take comfort from the fact that death had been, in Blachowicz’s word, ‘defanged,’ just at the point when death was about to impact on their world in ways they could not have imagined."