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A Lasting Impression

Charles F. Merbs

“Hello Professor Merbs,” the email began. “I hope you remember me. I took several of your classes and really enjoyed them. I was impressed by some pictures you showed in one of the classes, pictures of old colonial gravestones with skulls on them. I was especially impressed with the gravestone of someone named Susanna Jayne. In fact, I was so impressed I did something about it.”

I think every teacher hopes to have a positive effect on their students, to make some kind of lasting impression, and it is gratifying to get feedback confirming their appreciation.

I have long had an interest in gravestones that depict parts of the human skeleton, especially when it is more than simply a skull or crossed bones. Of all the early American stones displaying the skeleton image, that of Susanna Jayne is undoubtedly my favorite. The stone is in the Old Burial Hill Cemetery in Marblehead, Massachusetts, established as a burying ground in 1638. Susanna was the wife of Peter Jayne, a schoolmaster in Marblehead, and her stone reads as follows:

Beneath this Stone the mortal Part of Mrs. Susanna Jayne, the amiable Wife of Mr. Peter Jayne, who lived Beloved and Died Universally Lamented, on August 8th, 1776 in the 45th Year of her Age.

Susanna Jayne
Photo by Ansel Adams, 1949

The gravestone was carved from local slate by Henry Christian Geyer, a well–known Boston artisan who created other gravestones dating from the late colonial period. By the time Geyer created this masterpiece, skeleton gravestones had nearly disappeared from the American scene, and the Susanna Jayne stone stands as kind of a last hurrah for this kind of imagery. In 1949 it would even receive the attention of the famous photographer Ansel Adams, his photo of the stone being an interesting deviation from his grand scenic photographs.

The skeleton that forms the centerpiece of the Jayne stone includes the skull, arms, cervical and thoracic vertebrae, and ribs. Serious anatomical inaccuracies are immediately apparent. The skeleton lacks scapulae and a sternum, for example, and the teeth are too large and square. In totality, however, the vacant–eyed imagery of death it represents is remarkable.

Susanna Jayne Gravestone
Photo by author

The skull is wreathed in laurel, a symbol of death triumphing over life. The stems of the laurel fronds appear to bind the jaw to the cranium, a common practice of the day. The binding helped keep the jaw from falling away from the cranium as the soft tissue disintegrated which could produce a leering grin. The skeleton holds the moon in its right hand and the sun in its left.

A scythe with its handle running up through the ribs and next to the skull, and its blade behind the skull, symbolizes the cutting down of life, and an hourglass indicates that a lifetime has come to an end. Cherubs in the upper corners represent good and bats in the lower corners represent evil. A snake with its tail in its mouth forming a circle is an ancient symbol of eternity, time without end. Also included are two long bones, unidentifiable as any real human bones as is usually the case on these stones.

In February of 1993, my wife, Barbara, and I participated in the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Boston. We visited several famous old cemeteries with skeleton gravestones in Boston, such as Copp’s Hill, next to the famous Old North Church, the King’s Chapel Burying Ground and The Granary. This also seemed a perfect opportunity to rent a car to visit some the old cemeteries north of Boston, such as the Charter Street Burying Ground in Salem, made famous by the witch trials, and, of course, the Old Burial Hill cemetery in Marblehead. I would finally get to see and touch my favorite gravestone.

Old Burial Hill, Marblehead, Massachusetts
Photo by author

It was a cold bleak day when we arrived in Marblehead and we had the cemetery all to ourselves. Finding the Jayne gravestone would take some detective work because we had no guidebook or map. All of the stones were interesting, but the Jayne stone should have stood out because of its unusual outline, easily recognizable from the back as well as the front, but we were having difficulty finding it. We finally did and discovered why. The fragile slate around the border had been flaking away during the 200 plus years of the stone’s existence, so to protect it from further damage it had been encased in a plain rectangular slab of concrete. When viewed from the front up close it was immediately recognizable.

I had finally come face to face with the gravestone of Susanna Jayne. Even framed in concrete the imagery of death captured by its carver was clear and forceful. Sadly, the old stone did show the ravages of time. Most dramatically, the moon has been badly defaced since Adams’s 1949 photograph, probably a victim of target practice.

So, how had my lecture on colonial American gravestones with human skeleton motifs, and particularly the stone of Susanna Jayne, influenced my former student to the extent that it left a lasting impression? The email went on to explain.

I checked the internet until I found a drawing of the gravestone, the part with the skeleton at least, and I printed it. My boyfriend and I then took the drawing down to a local tattoo artist who copied it onto the two of us. It’s really neat. I’ll show it to you the next time I visit the university. See, your teaching did make an impression on me.

Well, at least that was something. Sadly, I never did get to see it.

©Charles F. Merbs, 2017