Last week, our sexton brought a UPS box addressed to me into my office. I wasn’t expecting anything and was surprised by the weight of the package. We opened it up to discover a headstone, not something you get in the mail every day.
The headstone was accompanied by a picture of a young sailor from the 1950s, holding the tombstone aboard a Navy ship. The accompanying unsigned letter noted that this headstone had been purloined by said sailor from a wooden toolshed on our property when he was stationed at the Charlestown Navy Yard in the 1950s. The headstone travelled with him to the Artic and the tropics while he served in the Navy and was turned into a small coffee table upon his retirement to California. He decided after fifty years to return the headstone back to its rightful owner.
The inscription on the headstone reads:
AGED ABOUT 15
The decoration accompanying the inscription is typical of early eighteenth century funerary art. The stone is topped by a winged skull, a rather grim symbol of death, denoting the Puritan’s pessimistic view of life. Eighty percent of the pre 1825 headstones in Copp’s Hill Cemetery employ this motif.
Given the burial date preceded the founding of the church by ten years, we checked with the city to see if the headstone is from Copp’s Hill Cemetery. The Historic Burying Ground Initiative located a file card from 1900 proving that Mary Paine had been buried in Copp’s Hill. How the headstone moved from there to a shed in our backyard is a mystery. We are glad that after its strange journey, Mary Paine’s headstone can be returned to its original location.
The headstone makes me wonder about the Paine family who lost a 15-month old daughter in 1713. Back then maybe fifty percent of children survived into adulthood. What was the Paine’s attitude toward life and death? How deeply did they grieve? What consolation did they find in their faith? How would they feel about the remarkable journey their daughter’s headstone has taken?
How have our attitudes toward commemorating the dead changed over the last three hundred years? Have you ventured into Copp’s Hill Cemetery recently to contemplate those who settled our neighborhood? Do you ever think about the tombs in the basement of Old North? How do you feel knowing that when we pray to God each Sunday, we may be joined by the eleven hundred souls who are interred beneath our feet?
How would you feel if some stranger mailed you a headstone from the past? At least the headstone didn’t have my name on it.
The Rev. Stephen T. Ayres
Vicar, Old North Church