Symposium explores the art, history and mystery of New England gravestones
By Brenda Sullivan - ReminderNews
East Hartford - posted Fri., Apr. 12, 2013
“Nothing says Merry Christmas or Happy Birthday like a gravestone,” said Brenda Sullivan (no relation to the reporter) of The Gravestone Girls, as she joked with a couple buying a mirror framed with a replica of a winged gravestone carving.
The Gravestone Girls was one of two dozen vendors and organizations who share a love of the art, history and mystery of New England burial grounds that were part of the 2013 Connecticut Gravestone Network Symposium, held April 6 at the South Senior Center in East Hartford.
The event also included several lectures by experts in these fields.
Elizabeth and David Malloy of Haddam, Conn., said they always look for The Gravestone Girls’ table at these kinds of events. Their array of items includes wall hangings, jewelry and items for home and garden, all based on cast replicas of ancient gravestones. The Gravestone Girls (http://www.gravestonegirls.com) also travel around New England giving lectures on the art, history and symbolism of gravestones.
David Malloy said it’s the folk art preserved by gravestones that draws him. “Growing up in New England, near old cemeteries, you have to admire these stones, like the artifacts of the Incas, sitting solemnly in cemeteries, battling the elements,” he said.
One of the most impressive stones in Connecticut, he said, is in East Haddam, Conn., inscribed with a carving of Noah’s ark. “It is rare for a stone to have a Biblical image… this stone is so unique, it was moved inside,” to the East Haddam Historical Society’s museum, to preserve it, he said.
“I learned about this stone by coming to these symposiums,” Malloy said.
At another table, consultant Dave Shortell looked at a photo brought to him by Laura W. Petix of South Glastonbury, who said learning about gravestone carvers is a hobby. She thought the stone was carved by Asa Hill, but after comparing it with other examples, she and Shortell agreed it was by another carver.
Shortell (www.davidshortell.com) said he became interested in gravestone art and history 15 years ago, after taking on a project to map a particular cemetery – one where he wanted to bury his mother’s ashes.
His mother had donated her body to the UConn Health Center for medical study. Years later, UConn contacted him to say he could collect his mother’s ashes. Shortell wanted to bury the ashes at a cemetery near where he was born, Hillside Cemetery in Unionville, but the caretakers there said they didn’t have accurate enough records to determine an available plot.
Shortell, who studied the subject at Central Connecticut State University, offered to map Hillside Cemetery. In return for this service, he was offered a plot of his choice, free of charge.
Shortell became fascinated by the history represented by gravestones. “I thought, ‘I could go to Egypt and study the pyramids, or I could stay at home and study these stones,’” he said.
He has compiled numerous maps and databases of cemeteries, putting in thousands of hours photographing the stones, recording and sorting them by name, date of birth/death and inscriptions.
To properly preserve these historic treasures requires expertise, especially knowing how different stones are affected by environmental elements and materials used to clean and stabilize them.
Beyond the Gravestone (www.beyondthegravestone.com), founded by Will and Lisa Cornell of Storrs, Conn., repairs stones and provides maintenance for a plot on a fee basis.
Lisa Cornell noted that when they do repairs, they do not re-carve the inscription or art, unless asked to do so. “We don’t want to re-do someone else’s art,” she said.
She and her husband were trained by conservator Jonathan Appell. Their goal, she said, is to preserve the gravestone “to a point where it will be around for another 50 years – to do no harm – and maybe by then, there will be even better technology.”
To learn more about gravestone research, visit The Association for Gravestone Studies at http://www.gravestonestudies.org and the Connecticut Gravestone Network at http://ctgravestones.com or e-mail Executive Director Ruth Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.