Reading the Gravestones of Early New England
Presented by John G. S. Hanson
Virtually all genealogists have an appreciation for old graveyards: inscriptions often reveal birth and death dates, family relationships, and other details. Yet the epitaphs inscribed on early New England gravestones—poetic messages expressing contemporary attitudes towards life, death, and eternity—are too often dismissed as sentimental doggerel. Every single epitaph was chosen for a reason of utmost importance—to memorialize the death of a loved one. Knowing the literary context can increase our understanding of these historic epitaphs and even shed light on the lives of the deceased and their family members. Using several examples of early New England gravestones, epitaph expert John Hanson will discuss how to understand the source of inspiration and meaning behind these passages, and what they really say about our ancestors.
John Hanson, a Massachusetts native, is the author of Reading the Gravestones of Old New England (McFarland, 2021). His article “Reading the Epitaphs of Old New England Gravestones” is the cover story of the Summer 2022 issue of American Ancestors magazine. He has published and spoken extensively on his research.