Headstone secrets in Martha’s Vineyard graveyards

Ralph Stewart

Brenda Sullivan is excited about an upcoming visit to the Vineyard, but not for a day at the beach, a tour of Island landmarks, or any of the other usual attractions. Instead, she’s eager to visit the Island because of a surprising abundance of graveyards here.

According to Ms. Sullivan, the founder of the Gravestone Girls, there are 38 burial grounds on the Vineyard and she intends to visit every one of them in preparation for her presentation, Welcome to the Graveyard at the Vineyard Haven Library next Tuesday.

Ms. Sullivan will be presenting a virtual tour based on the unique artwork found on local gravestones. She will also delve into some history and interpretation of the symbols found on old New England grave markers.

The three Gravestone Girls, Ms. Sullivan and her longtime friends Melissa Anderson and Maggie White, offer lectures, gravestone-rubbing classes, and cemetery tours. They also produce and sell three-dimensional replications of the primitive artwork found on colonial gravestones.

Ms. Sullivan’s mother was an antiques dealer and her father did all the restoration work for the family business. From him, she learned small artifact restoration, and she studied art history in college. She has merged these two interests into her current business.

Starting out with gravestone rubbings, a technique she picked up during childhood visits to the family plot in Bolton, Ms. Sullivan began experimenting with a way to make more tangible representations of gravestone art. She and her team create castings of carvings using a technique that she specifically developed to protect the stones from which they make the molds. The Gravestone Girls sell the stone-like plaster castings as hanging sculptures, magnets, and jewelry at crafts fairs. They also do commission pieces from ancestral gravestones.

Following their mission to “Keep our dead alive,” the three women travel around New England in search of new and unusual gravestones. For their lectures, they spend a day visiting local graveyards so that they can individualize their presentations.

“We go out into the field and get acquainted with all the cemeteries in a particular region,” Ms. Sullivan said. “I want to show members of the audience what’s on their Main Street or in their backyard. Get them to remember that their history is out there and hopefully explore it on their own.

“My photos are taken to do a chronology. In New England it’s easy to start with the colonial era right up into modern times. I give about a 300-year perspective of the evolution of cemeteries and gravestones.”

While her subject may sound morbid to some, Ms. Sullivan points out that our graveyards can provide one of the few lasting records of our history. “You can’t live in this part of the country without having these spaces everywhere you go. These colonial burial grounds were the first billboards of the living world. You have the opportunity to go out today and meet somebody from 300 years ago. You can get an idea for what society was like, what the town was like for a period of time. There’s a whole lot of information to be found in gravestones. The symbolic ones were meant to speak to the public about the philosophy of the time.”

As an example, Ms. Sullivan cited the popularity of the winged skull on 17th and 18th century markers. “It’s the oldest symbol in colonial gravestones,” she said. “It was meant to serve as a warning about man’s mortality. It was considered sacrilegious to use angels or other Christian iconography for this purpose.

“Death was an ever-present specter in the lives of the colonists,” Ms. Sullivan said, adding that the winged skull or skull and crossbones images served as a visual reminder. “It spoke to people who couldn’t read the writings on the gravestone.”

Ms. Sullivan hopes to encourage people with her presentations to investigate their local graveyards on their own and possibly do more research on early history. She talks about designs from the colonial era and the Victorian era right up until the present day. For her trip to the Vineyard she is looking forward to examining our two most well-known gravestones — those of John Belushi and Nancy Luce, the Chicken Lady of West Tisbury.

Of the former she says, “John Belushi’s is a really great gravestone in that it is the old colonial symbol for a 20th century man.” She was thrilled that an earlier sighting of the Nancy Luce grave, surrounded by plastic chickens, led her to research the story. “I’m very excited to see what else I find while I’m there,” she said

Before her presentation next Tuesday, Ms. Sullivan will try to visit all 38 sites on the Island in one day. “I’ll be challenged,” she said, “but I hate to leave any behind. No stone unturned.”

Welcome to the Graveyard, 7 pm, Tuesday, June 21, Vineyard Haven Library, Main Street. For more information, call 505-696-4211.