Category Archives: gravestones


IMG_9515IMG_9512    Mother. My mouth shaped the word soundlessly as I approached this grave from the eastern side of the burial ground at St. John’s Church. It intrigued me that this word stood alone on one of the surfaces of the grave in bold. Facing the direction of the rising sun, these letters are consistently first to see the light of day. As dawn breaks into morning, the world knows the woman buried in this spot as “Mother.” As I ambled around the grave, I began to think that she had no other identification on the grave, and this was the only way this woman wished to be remembered. However, I rounded the last corner, finally coming upon an inscription: “Mary Relict of Florence Downey, Born at Moville, CO, Donegal, Ireland. Aug. 8  1789 – Died July 29, 1880.” Mary Relict of Florence Downey was my mystery mother. I had mixed feelings as I repeated her identifier again and again in my mind. At first, I felt a warmth, knowing that her most descriptive word associates with taking care of others. I thought of my own mom. I thought of protection. The simple grave does not give us any more information about her family, but I imagine she probably had many children. Or, seeing as another prominent aspect of the memorial is a cross, this could relate to the Mother in a religious sense. As she was of Irish descent, one could possibly surmise that she was Catholic- a religion that places large influence on Mother Mary. Either way, she must have led a fulfilled life to want to be remembered as “Mother.” Then the warm feeling began to fade as a result of her word choice. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, women generally did not have equal rights as men. Inscriptions and epitaphs essentially are the last thing a person is connected with in the earthly world. Mary, although she could have been brilliantly intelligent, was forever doomed to be attached to the word “mother.” She could never be known as anything more because she was a woman, and mothering was her primary duty. What came off originally as a sweet word ended up leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.


In all, this grave struck me as unusual and attractive. The large cross, in a burial ground where religious symbols appeared infrequently, made me arrive at the conclusion that Mary held religion as a high priority. The top of the gravestone itself showed a scroll. It is possible that we can see the end of the scroll because it marks the end of her life on Earth. The shamrocks beautifully symbolize Mary’s country of origin. Although fairly simple, this gravestone holds a lot of meaning. Walking away from Mother, I felt that my time spent at her grave gave me insight to her life in ways that other stones did not.

St. John’s Episcopal Church

While visiting St. John’s Episcopal Church last Wednesday, we observed that there was not much rhyme or reason to the layout of the gravestones in the cemetery, other than that they all faced east. However, after touring the grounds on my own, I noticed something else most of the gravestones had in common: a lack of Christian iconography on the headstones. Unlike many of the tombstones we saw in the Farber Gravestone Collection, which had engravings of winged faces and hands reaching towards heaven, the tombstones at St. John’s seemed to have much more secular engravings like the urn and the willow tree, such as this slated headboard from Boston, Massachusetts:
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But one of the most intriguing gravestones I came across was one with an engraving that looked like a dollar sign with three vertical lines through it:


Unfamiliar with the symbol, I looked it up and found that it represents the Greek letters I, H, and S, or the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek. I was fascinated by this gravestone in particular because it seemed to be the most non-secular in a predominantly secular graveyard.

The gravestone belongs to Reverend Robert Archer Goodwin, who was also the Rector of St. John’s Church, according to the engraving on the stone. In Mr. Smith’s overview, he mentioned how many of the gravestones emphasized the script and the epitaph over the iconography. Reverend Goodwin’s stone includes a bible verse taken from 1 Corinthians 15:57 that reads, “Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” whereas most other stones in the cemetery put emphasis on memorializing the deceased through their epitaphs.

The most distinguishing characteristic of the gravestone, however, is the cross at the top of the monument, in contrast with the traditional rounded headstones on most of the other graves in the site. The gravestone also takes an almost hierarchical shape, with Christ being at the base of the monument (in the bible verse), the middle (with the engraving), and at the top (with the large cross). Lastly, the gravestone is in close proximity to the church, which, according to Nelson’s reading, places him closer to God.

Though the gravesite is inclusive to catholics, baptists, and methodists, and the iconography on the headstones seems predominantly secular, this particular gravestone seems to keep the emphasis on God and Christianity within the churchyard.