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.
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.
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.
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.