31 Oct

GG In The News: Tombstone touches create decorative art from the macabre|Telegram & Gazette – Worcester, MA

Tuesday, October 31, 2006  
Gravestone Girls

Tombstone touches create decorative art from the macabre

Every day is Halloween for Maggie White and Brenda Sullivan. They spend as much time in cemeteries as they can making beautiful decorative art from gravestone rubbings and castings. They have been working together since they were children growing up in Southboro. When it came time to name their quirky artistic collaboration, the choice was … monumental. They called themselves the Gravestone Girls. 

With the art of gravestone rubbing, paper is placed over a headstone and ink, paint or charcoal gently and repeatedly rubbed over it to reveal faint details weathered down by time — for centuries in the case of Colonial cemeteries — and no longer visible to the naked eye. “Your hands become your eyes,” said White. 

What those “eyes” see can be tragic and uplifting or downright scary, as in this epithet the Gravestone Girls revealed word by word: “Take note passerby, as you are now so once was I. As I am now so shall you be, prepare for death and follow me.” One of Sullivan’s favorites shows that the departed soul had a practical bent in life. It reads: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, when being cremated an urn is a must.” In a Pennsylvania cemetery, White found a stone that aimed to chastise from beyond the grave. It said, “I told you I was sick.” Other people put surprisingly amusing epitaphs above their final resting places. One such: “Death is but a change of address.”  

But comedic relief is a fringe benefit. Most people turn to gravestone rubbing for other reasons and Sullivan and White offer classes to teach how to do it the right way so stones are not harmed. 

“Everybody has an interest in the cemetery for one reason or another — morbid curiosity is one of them,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes it’s art, genealogy, history. A lot of house genealogists have been taking the class lately.” 

A house genealogist is someone who owns an older home and is researching the people who originally built the house or lived in it later. Sullivan worked recently with a couple who bought an old house in Grafton and, in the process of renovation, discovered clues about the people who had lived there. “They found an old shoe, a map, newspaper, toys, marbles — all those things you find coming to a place that has been lived in for hundreds of years,” she said. “That got them interested in who was the builder and they did their homework and found out he was buried in one of the cemeteries that I teach in.” 

It is often said that genealogy is an addictive hobby. House genealogy, apparently, is no exception. 

“They arrived that morning for class and it was a husband and wife,” Sullivan said, of the Grafton couple. “They were there early and he went dashing through the cemetery. He knew exactly where the stone was and he said, ‘This is the one I’m working on today.’ They wanted the gravestone rubbing to put in a collection of all the other pieces they had assembled showing the historical collection of their house. 

“If it is done properly, it is a completely safe and non-invasive technique,” Sullivan said. “The act of rubbing is not going to actually wear the stone away, as many people worry about. I firmly believe that one New England winter or a summer of lawnmowers and weed whackers by the groundskeeper is far more detrimental on gravestones than what we teach people to do.” The Gravestone Girls were taught the process many years ago by Gloucester historian Edna Kent. 

Still, not all cemeteries allow gravestone rubbing or the three-dimensional castings the Gravestone Girls also do, using a proprietary non-invasive method. So rule number one is, always ask permission. Sometimes it’s as simple as a phone call to a town hall where somebody there might say “Yes you can,” or they’ll point you to someone else — perhaps the cemetery commission or the historical society. But sometimes it can get very involved, as when Sullivan was asked to do a casting of a gravestone in Concord. A man from Ohio had traced his ancestors back to that historic town and asked her if she could make a casting of the family stone. It wasn’t something she could do on the sly. 

“The Concord Cemetery Commission gave me a list of things that I had to provide them,” she said. “I had to meet with their group and give a presentation. I had to show them my work, I had to supply references. I had to supply a letter from the family member making the request. I had to meet with their cemetery conservation person. I had to prove that we were going to execute the process safely and that we were not going to run off to China and mass market it and put it in Spencer Gifts for sale. I had to agree that we would only make pieces for the family member and any other immediate family members that wanted one and I had to actually sign a letter saying I would not include that piece for sale in our catalog and I also had to turn the mold over to the family when we were done.” 

Concord is a very historic town that gets busloads of tourists every day. “They didn’t want them seeing us doing this and thinking it’s allowed,” Sullivan said. “I had to jump through so many hoops. Getting citizenship would have been easier.” 

Have the Gravestone Girls met any scary “citizens” of the cemetery, perhaps around Halloween? 

“No, but there was one cemetery in Pepperell that was cursed,” White said. They story goes that, back in Colonial times, a Pepperell woman was accused of witchcraft and put to death. Just before she breathed her last she put a hex on the town. “It seemed like she really did from the stones that we read,” White said. Those stones tell a chilling tale. Over the next 20 years or so, people that had been involved with her prosecution or their family members met with tragic endings. One got his head run over by a wagon and a little boy was crushed by falling boards at a lumber mill. “The carving on the top of the stone is just a little person laying down with two boards crossed over him,” Sullivan said. “There was a fire, a drowning, or their children died. There were eight of them and every one of those tragic deaths they attributed to the curse.”