Contributor: Deborah A. Smith
For some American children, childhood is forever. Innumerable, small-sized gravemarkers in American cemeteries across the land are stark reminders that while childhood lasts but a short time in an adult lifespan, for many buried there the years of youth constitute the fullness of time.
The ubiquity of children’s gravestones on the literal landscape is one reason this artifact merits inclusion in an archive of American Childhood Culture. For most of the five centuries of migration and settlement that define American history, mortality rates that shock our modern experiences with death explain their frequency. As recently as 1900, life expectancy was only 47: out of every 1,000 live births, 162 babies died in infancy. (The number is less than 7 today.) Children under 15 represented a third (34%) of the population in 1900 but more than half (53%) of the deaths.(1)
Equally important to their physical presence is the intangible hold children’s gravestones have on the cultural landscape. Gravestones are enduring evidence of widely varying cultural responses to human mortality. Children’s memorials are no different from many other childhood artifacts in that children themselves do not create them. Yet while it is perhaps inevitable that children’s gravemarkers reflect the adult survivors’ ideas about childhood mortality, without knowing those sensibilities one cannot fully understand cultural attitudes about the living child.(2)
In 1859, when John W. and Mary J. Hinkley erected this memorial to mark the graves of four of their children, who all died in the same decade,(3) they had no need to supply the chapter and verse of the relevant Biblical passage.(4) Members of the dominant Protestant, literate, middleclass, “Victorian” culture would have understood the lambs’ comforting message of childhood’s innocence.(5) In comparison, the marker for a child who died 200 years earlier would more likely have reflected the prevailing memento mori ethos. The New England Puritan’s child was not the Victorian’s envoy from heaven promising a future reunion with a merciful God, but a sinful soul whose death reminded the living to be ever prepared for uncertain judgment.(6)
The risk in illustrating only one example is that perceptions of childhood have evolved as much as the choices in stone and style. The gravemarker documents a unique life—itself a concept in Western history that is a relatively recent development in the millennia of human existence.(7) At the same time, while the names and dates remain highly personal, children’s gravestones—no less than an iconic toy—may evoke much more than the individuals who played with it. Their gravemarkers have the poignant power to remind us that childhood is a transitory status for some, a permanent condition for others, and a life passage that reflects great cultural diversity in every generation.
1. Deborah A. Smith, “The Visage Once So Dear: Interpreting Memorial Photographs,” in The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings, ed. Peter Benes (Boston University, 1994), citing Jack B. Kamerman, Death in the Midst of Life: Social and Cultural Influences on Death, Grief, and Mourning (1988).
2. Lewis O. Saum, “Death in the Popular Mind in Pre-Civil War America,” in Death in America, ed. David Stannard (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975).
3. It is not absolutely certain that the Hinkley stone dates from the same year as the last death in 1859; however, a fifth child who died at the age of 9 months in 1863 appears to have been a later addition to the back of the stone (not pictured). The conventions chosen to commemorate the deceased, none of whom lived to the age of 12 months, are typical of a pre-Civil War date. See Deborah A. Smith, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus: Consolation on Delaware Children’s Gravestones, 1840-1899.” Markers IV (Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies, 1987).
4 Isaiah 40:11. "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” (King James Version)
5. Daniel Walker Howe, ed. Victorian America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976).
6. Peter Grigg Slater, Children in the New England Mind in Life and in Death (Hamden, CT: Archon Books. 1977)
7. Philippe Aries, Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).
|Previous Artifact||List of 25 Childhood Artifacts||Next Artifact|