Gravestones from the Past Were Way Cooler Than They Are Today
Article By Simon Davis, Vice.com
Brenda Sullivan hails from Central Massachusetts, a place with some of the oldest English colonial settlements in North America and centuries-old cemeteries. “When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother took me to the family cemetery on a regular basis to plant the trees and trim the bushes and tend the family graves,” she said.
For Sullivan, cemeteries played an important role in her life from an early age. “Because I was going there as a little kid, I was always taught to appreciate the art on the gravestones. I was practicing my numbers on them, practicing my reading.”
Pretty soon, Sullivan was doing gravestone rubbings as a way of bringing home the designs on the colonial tombstones. “I wanted more than just pieces of paper—I wanted the whole thing,” she said. “I have an art history education and a background in small antique restoration. So I took what I knew, took my education and put it to work to develop a process that I could take into the cemetery and create replicas.” This led Sullivan to startGravestone Girls, a company which “create[s] decorative artwork using the beautiful and primitive images carved on olde New England gravestones.”
Beyond providing the impetus to start Gravestone Girls—which, over the past 15 years, has grown into a full time job for Sullivan—this fondness for cemeteries led her to join theAssociation for Gravestone Studies (AGS), an organization that promotes the artistic and historical study of gravestones.
Founded in 1977, AGS has approximately 1,000 members and brings together headstone aficionados who approach the subject from the perspectives of “art, history, genealogy, archaeology, anthropology, conservation, or material culture.” According to Sullivan, “membership of the AGS is vast. Everything from hobbyists to educators with PhDs. There’s conservators and artists and everybody in between. You’d be amazed at how many niches there are in that genre.”
Photo courtesy of Brenda Sullivan
Bob Drinkwater, a founding member of AGS, refers to the organization’s approach as “multidisciplinary.” Drinkwater is on the organization’s Board of Trustees and even served as President at one time. Today, he a co-chair for the annual conference. According to Drinkwater, enthusiasm for all things colonial around the 1976 bicentennial led to spike in interest in gravestone studies that proved integral to the founding of AGS. “We rode that wave for a decade or so.”