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Sunday Pastries With the Dead 34
An est. 1704 New Jersey church and burial ground, and a living history village.
Today’s SPWTD installment is extra special because I was lucky enough to tour a 1700s-era burial ground and a living history museum with two experts who specialize in cemetery and headstone history. It’s deeply invigorating to geek out over a hyper-specific subject with academics in the field, and I’m excited to bring you some of the knowledge they graciously bestowed.
My journey to Middlesex County, NJ began at East Jersey Old Town Village, a living history museum comprised of historical New Jersey buildings from the 1700s and 1800s.
I explored residences, a print shop (complete with 1890s letterpress), a blacksmith shop, a schoolhouse, a church, a tavern, gardens, and more. All those hand-hewn beams, delft tile-lined fireplaces, and wide-plank wood floors—oh, my history-loving heart!
Next, I visited a nearby Episcopal church and cemetery, which were established in 1704. The first church structure was built in 1724, but it was destroyed in 1835 by one of the region’s most devastating tornadoes on record. Much of the original wood was used to recreate the current building. The area surrounding the church was a hub of British troop activity during the Revolutionary War, and numerous battles were fought very near to its grounds—the church was even briefly used by the British army as a barracks and hospital. The oldest legible monument in the adjacent graveyard dates to 1693 (more on that below).
My guides at both locales were Mark Nonestied, division head of Middlesex County’s Historic Sites and History Services (and author of New Jersey Cemeteries and Tombstones, which is one of my main reference bibles), and John Zielenski, an art historian with a deep knowledge of stone cutters (he’s also a budding—and very talented!—carver at the Village). In the cemetery, they highlighted some of the state’s best examples of 1700s-era stones from well-known carvers. Here’s more on the creators behind several stunning sets on display, care of my furiously scrawled notes as Mark and John narrated our walkthrough.
First, my new favorite—stones cut by the Stevens family shop, comprised of John I (1646-1746), his sons John II (1702-1778) and William (1710-1794), and his grandson John III (1725-between 1800 and 1810). The men worked out of Newport, RI, though John I originally hailed from England. Their shop is still in operation (you better believe I’m planning a visit). I’m utterly enchanted by their soul effigies—they’re both primitive and whimsical, and the slate stone they used sets the designs off beautifully.
Next is a very prolific New Jersey shop run by brothers Henry (1770-1839) and Jonathan Hand Osborn (1760-1846), who you may remember from SPWTD 30. They’re best known for their floral, bird, and monogram designs. Jonathan Hand’s soul effigies are recognizable thanks to their very prominent chins.
John told me the Osborns are also recognizable via their pared-down curtain design, and that Jonathan Hand’s lower g’s are tucked and Henry’s lower g’s are round with an indentation in the bottom center like an apple or peach (font nerds, rise up—it turns out that lettering is the best way to identify a carver!) They’re also the only carvers in New Jersey to use “the grave of” on their headstones.
One Osborn identifier that I find a bit tasteless is Jonathan Hand’s penchant for placing his signature prominently on a headstone’s tympanum. Normally, a maker’s mark is in a discreet location on the bottom right of the stone. You can see in the above two examples that he wrote “Cut by Jonathan Hand Osborn” and the date around the monograms of two separate stones in this burial ground.
Examples from other established carvers include New York-by-way-of-Boston carver William Grant (who, according to Mark’s amazing book, was active from 1740-1791 and who John told me is recognizable thanks to his soul effigy’s pear-shaped face) and the Sillcock family, who worked in New Jersey throughout the late 1700s into the 1800s.
Among the incredible craftsmanship on show here is an example of a less-learned carver, as you can see above by the visible score marks (created to keep the letters even) and shallowly-carved tympanums. John refers to him as the “rosette carver” for his signature tympanum design element.
There are also several examples of a rare headstone, here—one that states the deceased’s untimely cause of death. The first is this devastating tribute to young brothers Richard and Charles Hoopar, who died in 1693 after they skipped church and ate poisoned mushrooms. The stone reads:
Spataters Vnderneath this tomb
lies 2 boyes that lay in one womb
the eldest was full 12 years old
the yongest was V twice told
by eating mvshroms for food
rare in a days time they poyseond
were Richard Hoopar and Charles Hoopar.
Desesed Avgvst Anno Dom 1693
On the other side of the cemetery are the markers of three family members who died of smallpox within weeks of each other (you may recognize that the aforementioned “rosette carver” made these) Elizabeth “Eliza” Manning Fitzrandolph, who died March 1, 1732; her daughter Elizabeth Fitzrandolph, who died March 19, 1732; and her grandson (and Elizabeth’s nephew) Thomas Fitzrandolph, who died March 21, 1732. Their side-by-side headstones are a sobering reminder of how easily now-preventable disease once spread, and how it could quickly decimate families and towns.
To end, a few fun facts. I asked John why so many stones have abbreviated words and superscript letters (assuming that the carvers planned badly and ran out of space) and he told me that headstones were priced by the letter, so it was done to not only save space but also money. According to him and Mark, headstones at the time would often cost the equivalent of a person’s yearly salary! John also told me that the Osborn’s e with a flourish at the end wasn’t just a design element, but a space filler. And when I asked him what the cloud above so many soul effigy heads symbolizes, he referred to it as the “crown of righteousness” and said it means the deceased was a favorite in the eyes of God.
Many, many thanks to Mark Nonestied and John Zielenski for not only volunteering their time and incredible knowledge but also patiently fielding my endless stream of questions. I’m so grateful to be able to learn from them.
Until next Sunday, fellow taphophiles!
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