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“Memento Mori” Cemetery

‘Memento Mori’ Cemetery

By Lisa Johnson and Charles Leach, M.D.


We call it “Memento Mori,” that tree-shaded hill of grave markers visible behind a dark picket fence and Egyptian Revival gate with its papyrus columns. Thousands pass it daily in their cars. Of these, very few know the story of Farmington’s ancient graveyard.

"Memento Mori" cemetery

© Charles Leach, M.D.

“Memento Mori” says the gate – a short imperative sentence traceable to Roman times. Though the gate was erected in the 1840s (in imitation of New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery gate), the message comes straight from our Puritan forebears: “Remember that you die.” (Latin scholar Rose Greenwald explains that both words are “deponent verbs”, which explains the seemingly odd construction).

Today, Memento Mori is a property of the Farmington Village Green and Library Association, a nonprofit organization that is also responsible for the Farmington Library, Stanley-Whitman House and Village Green. The association, through the management of Stanley-Whitman House, protects, documents and maintains the cemetery and actively restores deteriorated markers. This work is important, since the yard is such a powerful link to the history of our town.

Memento Mori grew by stages. In 1661 and 1689 Thomas Barnes, an original proprietor, donated land just north of his house to create the first known public cemetery. (Earlier burials may have taken place on the site of a Native American graveyard now occupied by Riverside Cemetery.) Barnes’ gift became roughly the center of what we know as the Old Burying Ground today. In 1692 his eldest son, Joseph, sold an additional plot of land to the town before moving to the Southington section of Farmington. This allowed the town to enlarge the cemetery toward the street. The eastern half acre in the rear was sold to the Ecclesiastical Society in 1797 by Coral Case. The yard now contains 1.6 acres.

In the early twentieth century, the town quit claimed any right it might have to Memento Mori to the Village Green and Library, with the proviso that ownership would revert to the town should the association cease to exist. The estate of Henry Martin Cowles donated $1000 for the care of the cemetery; this was followed by a contribution from D. Newton Barney that established an endowment for its maintenance and preservation.

Memento Mori Bidwell

© Brooke Martin

Though we have cared tenderly for Memento Mori in recent years, things were not always so. For much of its three and a half centuries, it was unfenced and raggedly mown, and the dead were interred in some disorder. Sheep sometimes grazed in its long grass. As the souls of Farmington’s dead “winged their way to the mansions of light,” their earthly remains were considered cast-off husks and buried with little ceremony in the town’s “bone yard.” The stones marking their graves served to remind the stern, puritanical Yankees of early Farmington that life was short, death imminent and judgment inevitable – and that they had better behave and be fully prepared.

In their rigid denial of symbols and customs thought to derive from the “errant” Church of England, Puritan settlers adopted a stark way of death. The cemetery was often established at a distance from the Meeting House, creating a geography reflected to this day in Farmington and other old towns. The land was a town property – not the “Holy Ground” of the “Papists” and Anglicans – and burial in holy ground was not considered essential to the deceased’s success in the afterlife. Yards were generally not fenced — another rejection of custom. The congregation’s pastor did not come to a 17th-century graveside, and any funeral sermon was briefly included in the next regular service. There were no crosses or other iconography: These suggested Catholic traditions; the memory of England’s “Bloody Mary” and 16th-century Protestant martyrs was too fresh.

Markers were rarely used. Fewer than one hundred 17th-century gravestones remain in all of New England, in part because they have disappeared but largely because most graves were unmarked or designated by wooden markers that have disintegrated. Many of the dead were buried in small family graveyards. None of these remain in Farmington, although a few “orphan gravestones” have recently been discovered on Mountain Spring Road at Route 4, and removed for safety to the Farmington Historical Society’s Main Street cottage. These Hawley, Gridley and Lewis stones probably are the remnants of an old family plot, now lost.
In Memento Mori the oldest marker dates from 1685. There are only five 17th-century century stones — primitive or simply worded matter-of-fact notes that a neighbor had gone to rest. Life was simple and harsh, death was a frequent visitor and the hardscrabble Yankees simply weren’t interested in elegant or sentimental memorials.

Of the 860 stones in Memento Mori, 62 bear dates from 1700 to 1749; 254 from 1750 to 1799; 590 from 1800 to 1849; 45 from 1850 to 1899 and one after 1900. The totals are not proportionate to the town’s population at these times: approximately 750 in 1700; 6069 in 1774 (still including all of the seven “daughter towns” that later separated); 3042 in 1820 (still including Avon and Plainville); 3144 in 1860; 3305 in 1900. There are several reasons for the discrepancy. As noted, home burials were frequent and markers uncommon until the mid-1700’s. Some markers were cut from poor quality brownstone and have disintegrated. Perhaps a few have been removed, though vandalism has not occurred within recent memory.

One hundred and fourteen markers bear the Cowles name. There are 55 Wadsworths, 43 Lewises, 43 Porters and 39 Woodruffs. Thirty-one names of original proprietors are represented, but 16 of them are not. Other frequent names are: Bidwell, Curtis, Deming, Hills, Norton, Strong, Thompson, Whitman and Whittlesly (10 or more each). A large number of names occur only once or twice. One wonders where those many others are buried — some of whom one would expect to encounter here.

Memento Mori Egyptian Revival GAte

© Brooke Martin

One must suspect that the gross increase in recorded interments from 1750 through 1849 resulted from the great epidemics that swept the colonies and young Republic in those years. These were in great part due to the stress of war, increased ease of travel and the movements of armies across the land. A massive spotted fever (meningoccal meningitis/septicemia) epidemic devastated New England from 1806 through 1815, and Noah Porter buried many parishioners. Tuberculosis was endemic in Farmington, infecting entire families; it killed many and left others weakened for life. Close living, poor sanitation and primitive health care contributed. Hordes of children died in the spring epidemics. Smallpox persisted despite vaccination, cholera and typhoid were recurrent and influenza swept the town at intervals. Curiously, smallpox and spotted fever are mentioned only once or twice on Memento Mori inscriptions, and tuberculosis not at all.

Several styles are found among the gravestones of Memento Mori, reflecting the evolving fashions of the times. In general, styles were less refined and appeared later than in urban centers. Farmington was, however, an increasingly wealthy town beginning in the late 1700’s; grave markers reflected increased wealth and materialism. We give here a rough chronology:

Chronology of Memento Mori Gravestone Styles

First period:
17th and early 18th centuries
Primitive or simply lettered. No images. Brownstone or fieldstone.

Early Images:
Early to mid-18th century.
Grim winged death’s heads. Images often rather abstract. Vine or floral borders. Brownstone; later, mica schist.

Later images:
Mid- to late 18th century Less grim; some portraits/profiles; other icons.
Late 18th to early 19th century
More exuberant and heavily decorated. Cherubic faces; realistic/stylized upswept wings. “In memory of” in addition to simple name/date.

Classical revival:
1790’s onward Marble. Willows, urns etc. Upright tablets.
Egyptian revival:
1810 onward Obelisks. Various stones.
Other styles, often “architectural”:
Mid-19th century onward.
Often granite. Little imagery.

There are a few replacement stones as well, including two massive table-style markers dating to the 1890s and a companion to the 1688 Hart stone placed by descendents. And our soldiers from many wars have small government-issued marble markers with bright flags.

Size and refinement of the markers vary a great deal. Children’s are generally smaller but lack the gentle images of childhood common in more sentimental years to follow. In the early years, simply to have a grave marker was an indication of higher socioeconomic status. Puritan society was distinctly hierarchical, and bigger, fancier stones were more common among the wealthy and powerful. Even the charge for grave digging was sometimes assessed according to the status of the departed.

The brownstone markers that remain today all appear to have come from Connecticut quarries, though we do not know their exact origins. (A more precise idea of the origin of the stones could easily be addressed by chemical analysis of tiny samples.) Estimates of the number of quarries vary. Allan Ludwig in his “Graven Images” mentions five in the lower Connecticut River Valley: Longmeadow, Windsor, Bolton, Middletown (Chatham) and Portland. Bolton produced the durable schist; the others Triassic brownstone of varying quality.

There were also many smaller local quarries. One of these, in Farmington, is mentioned by John Treadwell in his 1810 response to the survey of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. Treadwell reports that the stone was used for grave markers, though he does not say how many. Quality ranged from the dense and fine-grained tan of Longmeadow and darker East Windsor stone to grainy brown sandstone/brownstone south of Hartford.

The big quarries in Chatham and Portland near Middletown were opened in the early years of the 18th century and produced vast amounts of stone of notoriously variable quality. As can be seen in Memento Mori, this had a tendency to crumble, fracture and spall (exfoliate) with freeze-thaw cycles. These problems accelerated the changeover to schist in the 1750-1775 era, and later to marble. Improvements in transportation allowed marble to reach Farmington from Bennington and points north in Vermont.

Memento Mori Gravestone

© Brooke Martin

The quality of brownstone employed by Connecticut stonecutters determines the condition of the markers today. Some stones in Memento Mori are remarkably preserved and their carvings in excellent shape. Others are shattered and beyond repair. Often, the exposed interior of the stones reveals a coarse-grained sandy quality that cannot support grout or mortar. Marble has other problems. There is a tendency for its calcium carbonate (CaCO3) to “sugar” onto the surface and gradually efface carvings .
The marbles are also thin, and often are found broken off and flat on the ground. This is not due to vandals, but to the freeze-thaw damage to a stone that may have tipped, offering leverage for a fracture. Granite is durable, though sometimes in need of grouting. We have no slates and few granite stones.

So who were the carvers, those earliest of Connecticut folk artists and sculptors? We know some by name, and more by their highly individual styles. They were vigorous, brawny craftsmen whose wares achieved great renown and are found up and down the Connecticut Valley and out in the hinterlands. They belonged to dynasties that often extended over several generations. The old trained the young, and styles can be traced from one family and workshop to another.

No doubt there were artisans at work in the earliest years, but their names are unknown to us. They and those who followed them had employments other than stonework, as did other artisans and professional men. Many were blacksmiths as well — a convenience since tools dulled and broke quickly on stone.

Memento Mori’s earliest known carver is James Stanclift [Stancliff] Jr. (1692-1772) of Middletown/Chatham. He belonged to a family of carvers; their work can be found from Saybrook to West Springfield, and they are represented in Boston as well. The three Stanclifts known to us are represented by several remaining gravestones. They are notable for first “opening” the Middletown area quarries, and were the first to add the winged skull motif to their artistry. A typical stone stands in the front row of Memento Mori (photo below). It has borders of the “kidney and rope” type, and the abstracted skull is notable for its short nose and grim small straight mouth. The feathered wings, representing the ascent of the soul to heaven, characteristically seem to sprout high on the skull and are tightly restrained.

Memento Mori Gravestone

© Charles Leach, M.D.

Another carver represented in Memento Mori is “Captain” Thomas Johnson “Esquire” (1690 -1761), the first of Connecticut’s most prominent family of gravestone carvers. He opened quarries east of the river at Middletown (Portland/Chatham) and later in Cromwell. His son Steven is believed to have worked with him. Son “Deacon” “Ensign” Thomas Jr. (1718-1774) and nephew Thomas III “of Chatham” (1750-1789), as well as brother Joseph (1698-?1783) of East Hartford, were also popular carvers and catered to a clientele that included many of the elite. Their work can be found in all the river towns, on the coast and on Long Island.

Their styles evolved with the fashions of the times, and the last of their stones have cherubic faces, upswept wings and the florid décor of the high baroque of the late 18th century. Unfortunately, they often worked in the coarsely granular lower quality stone of the Middletown area and many of their markers have deteriorated. Memento Mori has a number of Johnson stones, including two prominent ones in the front row: Esther Hawley and Sarah Bull. These have floral borders, rosettes on the shoulders and two varieties of the skull/soul face – one elongate and one round and less severe.

Memento Mori Gravestone

© Charles Leach, M.D.

Stylized wings resemble full down-combed hair. One of the stone’s inscriptions is enclosed in a large full heart outline. The shallow carving and careful lettering show that these markers are the work of Thomas Johnson Jr. The faces lack the horrible toothiness of Captain Johnson’s work, but there is no doubt that their message is in part “Memento Mori.” Later baroque stones (photo below) in the mid portion of the yard (Chauncy Root, James Cowles) are those of a Johnson or of one of several imitators. The Johnsons were style-setters: Local and itinerant carvers working away from the river copied them but found it difficult to compete on their own ground.

One of these locals is known as “The Bat Carver,” whose work is most likely represented in Memento Mori. Though we do not know him by name, his work is recognizable at a distance by its small faces, batlike undetailed wings, misspellings, lumpy borders and imbalanced pinwheel rosettes. He seems to have worked to the northwest of us, and his markers are found in Simsbury and points north to Suffield. He apparently was popular (or his stone durable), because many of his curious markers remain.

Memento Mori "Bat Design"

© Brooke Martin

The memorial art of carver Gershom Bartlett is a conspicuous presence in Memento Mori. His designs are striking, and his stones — of sparkling mica schist — have endured and stand out palely among the brownstones. Bartlett was born in Bolton and worked much of his life in the schist that is quarried there. We know a good deal about him, and Dr. Ernest Caulfield tells his story entertainingly in “Markers VIII,” a collection of papers on Connecticut carvers. Bartlett was a veteran of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. In later years he settled upriver in Norwich Vermont, carving markers until his death in 1798. He was a supporter of Dartmouth College and a friend of its founder, Eleazer Wheelock, and perhaps that is how he acquired his D.D. degree.

Over a long life, Bartlett produced an incredible number of gravestones; one can find them by the dozen in yards up and down the Connecticut Valley. A good example in Memento Mori is that of young Dr. Thomas Mather. This large tablet is easily seen from Main Street and stands a few feet into the graveyard. Characteristic of Bartlett’s work, tympanum and borders are deeply and expressively cut; the skull is elongate big-nosed and doleful, and wears a four-pointed crown. Its wings are highly stylized, with sinuous “French Curve” elements ending in small terminal loops. One sees at once why (in the many years during which he could not be identified) he was known as “The Hook and Eye Carver” and excited great curiosity.

Other carvers carry nicknames, as well — given them by gravestone researchers and often witty. One, for example, for Stephen Root, dated 1767, is attributed to the “Meriden/Farmington Squint-Eyed Carver (CT)”; one for Daniel Gridley of 1781 is attributed to” Southington/Meriden/Farmington Profile Carvers 1780s (CT)”; and another one for Jonathan Gridley, 1794, is attributed to “Faces with Wings 1780-1799 (Multiple Carvers).”

No matter how we try, we have not been able to connect the majority of markers with known carvers. That is especially true of the myriad of thin marble standing slabs that crowd the last rows of the yard. Wordings become brief. Imagery becomes stereotyped — the willow tree is a good example. Styles are less well developed, and the stones (brought from afar and perhaps inscribed by local shops) less original and individualized.

The concept of “Memento Mori” — warning the living to be aware always of death and to prepare for it — wanes as one walks back through the yard into its crowded rear ranks. It is almost as though the 19th-century townspeople were already much too aware of the brevity of life, as they had lost so many friends and family to infectious diseases. The inscriptions express sadness, loss, romanticization of death, classical but simply drawn elegance — or return to the text-only style of the first carvers.

Unfortunately, many of the early markers are deteriorating — recently from the pernicious effects of acid rain and pollution. Even marble dissolves under their attack, with calcium carbonate (calcite) depositing on its surface (“sugaring”). The Village Green and Library Association has in place an endowment-supported program of conservation by which we care for the most deserving stones on a year-by-year basis. Stones are selected by “triage”: Criteria are artistry, historical significance, state of decay and salvagability. In this effort, we are fortunate to have the help of John Zito III of Beij Williams and Zito — another old family dynasty of artists in stone.

Memento Mori decaying gravestone

© Brooke Martin

Techniques of marker restoration have improved in recent years, and we can avoid the damage caused in the past by iron bolts and rods, inappropriate mortars, concrete bedding etc. At least thirteen markers have been repaired using infills of color-matched grout and repair of fractures. Because the work is time consuming and costly, we opt for blank infill surfaces rather than the recarving used in Hartford’s Ancient Graveyard. Many stones are also being “consolidated” — with applications of a fluid that penetrates the stone and bonds together the granules of loosely-structured brownstone.

Sadly, many of the markers have shed the layers of stone containing their inscriptions and can never be repaired. This process has gone on for many years, and to some of us seems to simply parallel in stone the inevitable decay of those interred beneath.

Let us take you on a little stroll through the yard to meet some of its residents. There, for example, is Judah Woodruff, designer and builder of the Meeting House (1772) and of 21 Farmington houses. The son of original proprietor Matthew Woodruff, Judah was gifted and self-taught. He fought at Ticonderoga in the French and Indian War and was a captain in the Revolution. An independent character, he was excommunicated from the Farmington church in 1797 after arguing with Rev. Joseph Washburn over his religious convictions.

Several notable early pastors are there as well. For example, Samuel Hooker (ca 1633- 1697) was son of Hartford founder Thomas Hooker, and our second minister. He was well-to-do and owned slaves. He was the first in town to own a watch and a clock. A man of intelligence, he was Harvard-educated and an educator of youths himself, preparing them for college. He was one of four men delegated to negotiate the union of the Connecticut Colony with New Haven Colony.

December 20, 2006

© Brooke Martin

Hooker and his successor, Samuel Whitman, lie beneath massive table grave markers (replaced 1890’s) in a prominent location. He is memorialized as “ye late learned and pious pastor of ye 1st church”. He purchased the Stanley Whitman House for his son Solomon. A few yards uphill from the Whitmans lies Timothy Pitkin – the first wealthy and stylish pastor, liberal and a “new light” in his beliefs. And to their left is Washburn, Judah Woodruff’s nemesis.

Stephen Hart Grave Stones

© Brooke Martin

Others of note are Stephen Hart (d.1689), whose family built the gristmill that since 1690 has stood at the bottom of Mill Lane; Solomon and Martha Cowles, the tavern owners charged by Patriot neighbors with serving boycotted English tea; Mathias Leaming, our Tory who “hath got beyond the reach of parsecushion” and is buried backwards; Mercy Bidwell, who was “struck by a thunderbolt”; and … Bird, whose stone tells us that he was “killed by an insane person.” Clearly, newsworthy deaths belonged on markers – perhaps a survival of the Puritans’ suspicion that such were the retributions of an angry God.

Gravestone of Mathias Leaming

© Brooke Martin

In the rear ranks of marble tablets is that of 18-year-old Julia Cowles, whose touching diary records her long decline and death from tuberculosis. Nearby lies her young cousin Betsy Mix, who died in her teens during the terrible spotted fever epidemic. And there are many more of whom it can be said, as it was of the Rev. Noah Porter, that “he being dead yet speaketh”.
Memento Mori’s acre and a half do indeed speak of Farmington’s remarkable past to those who are able to see and listen as they pass the old graveyard. Its stones recall the dramas, tragedies, conflicts — and the affections — of the many folks who dwelt in our town before us. Would that we could have known those worthy, colorful Yankees of another day who rest under the green turf of its grassy hill.

The old markers are of themselves beautiful folk art; they are also clues to mysteries and to an infinity of stories that delight the lover of local history. Memento Mori is in fact a rich outdoor museum, and deserves our most devoted care, protection and study. Such places are the very anchors of our memories. Where would we be without them?

— September 15, 2006