Graves of Slate

Welsh slate gravestone from Slate Valley With Halloween right around the corner, it seems natural to look at one of the earliest uses of slate in America and, really, one of America’s earliest forms of art, gravestones. Although too early to benefit from the discovery of large slate quarries in the Slate Valley in the 1840s, slate as funerary art began as early as the 1630s. In New England, beautifully carved gravestones helped reflect the attitudes towards death during the period and helped document the well-lived lives of those dearly departed. Grave stone of Helena Van Eps Pieterse in Vale Cemetery, Schenectady New York

Making use of locally discovered slate, Boston was the hub of early slate gravestone carving. Skulls and cross-bones and epitaphs warning readers that “As I am now, then soon you will be” and to “follow me into the grave” re-enforced the temporary nature of life on earth and the need for constant preparation of a person’s soul for the next world. Along with their morbid undertones, these early funerary sculptures also reflected a skill and style that was very individualized to the carver. Artistic differences while carving similar motifs, from deaths’ heads and imps to floral motifs and cherubs reflect the style of the period and the creativity of the carver.

The winged skull

During the 18th century, changing ideas about death were reflected in changing styles of gravestones. Although still predominantly made of carved gray slate, stones began to reflect a change in feelings about death. Still utilizing phrases like “Here lies the body” or the even more graphic “the remains” stones also displayed the evolving deaths’ head, first as a skull and cross-bones to a winged skull, and finally to a pleasant cherubs’ head. This slight decorative change represented a greater change in ideas about death and religion that first appeared in Europe and slowly moved to America, even Puritan New England.

Cherubs-head grave stone from York, Maine

By the end of the 18th century a drastic change in both decorative elements and material occurred in gravestone art. The classic gray of slate gave way to the pure white of marble. While marble replaced slate as the most popular material for gravestones, classical white urns and weeping willows moved the visual emphasis from the newly deceased to those left to mourn. Memorial phrasing also emphasized the process of mourning instead of preparation for the afterlife. The deceased no longer spoke from beyond the grave to warn the living, now gravestones spoke with a disembodied voice in phrases like “in memory of” or the “dearly departed” reminding the viewer once again of those left behind to remember and care for those who died.

Weeping willow motif from St. Georges' Church in Schenectady, New York

Although the popular use of slate as funerary art ended before the quarrying of slate from the Slate Valley, residents of the community used the stone in their own graves throughout the 19th century. Either in respect for the stone whose livelihood they depended on, or simply because of the ease of accessibility, beautifully carved slate gravestones remained, right next to the popular and stylish marble, and later, granite stones of the 19th century.

Welsh slate gravestone


About slatevalleymuseum

This year, Slate Valley Museum celebrates its 15th year of exciting range of programs, exhibitions, and special events that share its mission to collect, catalogue, conserve, exhibit, and interpret materials, artifacts, machines, and information that demonstrate the geology of slate and the history of slate quarrying and the quarrying community in the Slate Valley of New York and Vermont. We invite you to join us and... explore... exhibits of historic artifacts from the area's renowned slate quarries and mills displays revealing the science and art of slate quarrying, and its influence on the Slate Valley culture a quarry shanty, complete with all the machinery and tools used in traditional slate quarrying a geological display illustrating the natural history of slate examples of how slate has been used in the structure and decor of local buildings and as an inspriration for artworks in various media and our new multi-media exhibit HEAVY LIFTING: A Human and Technological History of Moving Slate from Quarry to Market, 1850-Present
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s