It’s not every day that what I’m up to jives with things that are making the rounds in news media, local news included. But earlier this week just that happened, when an article came across my radar about an old headstone being found wedged between two trees that had long since started growing over them.
The trees are 150 years old, while the stone itself is 300 years old. The stone belongs to Diadema and Lucretia Carew, ages 3 and 10, respectively, who died just days apart of diphtheria during an outbreak in 1736. The strange thing is, though, that they are both buried in the Old Norwichtown Cemetery with their parents–in Norwich, 20 miles away. And so there’s a bit of a mystery surrounding what’s going on with it.
Given my current research involving Colonial-Era New England cemeteries, I loved reading about this. I don’t know whether it will ever quite be “solved,” but I do have some decent speculation as to what’s going on here.
Due to the harsh realities of life, combined with a Puritanical society, cemeteries in Colonial New England were utilitarian and not considered sacred ground until muuuuuuuch more recently. They weren’t hallowed ground, they weren’t places of quiet reflection and contemplation on mortality or to emotionally commune with loved ones long gone. You buried the dead and put a stone to mark where not to dig next time.
Over time that did obviously begin to change. Bald fieldstones became marked with initials to show that yes, this is a burial. Fieldstones are EVERYWHERE in New England, and so this was also partly utilitarian because a few seemingly symmetrically-placed stones can pretty easily be a naturally-occurring thing around here. Eventually stones became cut into a blockier shape. And over time they started incorporating more personal bits (like full names instead of simply initials) and even religious symbols.
You can learn a lot about individuals and the broader community in which they lived from looking at their headstones.
As stones became more ornate they still were less than important after a family was no longer in the area or lacked social clout for their opinion on what happened to their family’s remains to matter. Ornate stones were often swiped for a lot of reasons, they’ve been found as both doorway stones and well covers. Or sometimes they were replaced for a more “modern” stone that community members or (more likely) descendants thought was more appropriate.
Elise Giammarco Carlson, President of the Johnston (Rhode Island) Historical Society and long-time volunteer with the Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries Commission recounted finding one such replaced stone while cleaning a cemetery lot. She noticed that a stone wall surrounding the cemetery had an unusually smooth top stone in one spot.
It was the original headstone of Amy Randall, long time resident of the cemetery. Her stone was replaced (along with her husband’s) with a marble stone that by our standards is fairly less impressive.
So the stones, once they had been replaced or if they had nobody local to care for them, often just went missing. Whether from blatant disregard or from the continued mentality of cemeteries not being sacred in the sense we think of them today is somewhat irrelevant to what happened here.
This one being 150 years older than the enclosing trees and belonging to girls buried some 20 miles away, as well as having a spiritual warding symbol on it makes me think sometime much more recently than the 18th century it was taken and put between those trees as either a ward or just a decoration. Eventually it was forgotten and overgrown, and then the trees shared it as a meal.
Maybe more will be uncovered and understood with more research, but for me, the seeming mystery is really just the way things went in a world without our sense of nostalgia.