No two gravestones are the same: Historic Deerfield offers tours and lectures about gravestones and the people behind and beneath them
|Published: 10-20-2023 1:31 PM
When thinking about Historic Deerfield, the museum’s historical homes and artifact exhibitions may come to mind, but what about the gravestones?
Those monuments commemorating some of the people who lived in the town’s early days can provide a wealth of historical information and insight and each October, the museum takes some time to shine a light on these stones and the people behind (and under) them – just in time for Halloween, even if the focus is not on spooks and scares.
That focus returns on Saturday, Oct. 28 in two parts. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Scituate, Rhode Island stone carver Karin Sprague is making her annual return to Historic Deerfield, as she demonstrates how these historical monuments have been made over the years.
Sprague has been a regular demonstrator over the last two decades at the museum and she said a stop by the Old Burying Grounds and all of its historical gravestones on her very first visit to Historic Deerfield is what really drew her in.
“It’s remarkable,” Sprague said, adding that her demonstration will be focused around carving a historical motif into a gravestone she’s been bringing to the museum for the last several years.
For Sprague, who runs Karin Sprague Stone Carvers with a dedicated team on her property in Rhode Island, gravestone carving became her calling in life following the death of her father-in-law in 1996, when she took on the role of carving his slate gravestone, which was then placed on his grave on Block Island.
“Something ignited in my soul … we all need to find that, what lights us up, what ignites us,” she said. “This is my work, I know what I have been called to do.”
A news article was written about the gravestone she carved, which inspired people to commission stones from her and after that, there was “no turning back.” Today, she carves nearly two dozen gravestones a year for customers from the around the U.S. and she shares this experience with her daughter, who works with her in the shop.
In the intimate process of designing a gravestone for a customer, Sprague said she invites the family into her home, cooks up a brunch and then sits down with the family and chats with them about how they want their family member to be remembered. Sometimes she even works with the person the gravestone will be honoring if they come to her before their death.
From there, she reviews the notes she took and then works on designing the calligraphy, epitaph and motifs on paper before seeking approval from the family. Contrary to her historical demonstration at Historic Deerfield, Sprague said all of her work is “contemporary” and is focused on telling the story of the person the stone is intended for.
“No two stones that we make are ever the same, there’s not a catalog they’re picking from,” Sprague said. In this process, she said she takes a cue from the title of a novel she once read called “The Art of Remembering” because that is the core of her work. “There’s a shared healing that happens … The Art of Remembering, that’s what we do here.”
On the same day of Sprague’s demonstration, the museum is also hosting guided tours of the cemetery that drew Sprague decades ago. Guided tours of the Old Burying Ground will be available at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m and folks are asked to meet at the Visitor Center.
Also happening that morning at 11 a.m. at the Visitor Center at Hall Tavern will be “Old Deerfield’s Old Graveyards,” an illustrated lecture led by Historic Deerfield’s Interpretive Program Manager and Director of Archaeology Claire Carlson, who will talk about the Old Burying Ground and the Laurel Hill Cemetery.
The Old Burying Ground was used by English settlers in the 1690s and features at least 266 grave markers, although the number of people buried there exceeds that number because some markers have been destroyed and other unmarked graves include poor residents, Black people and Native Americans, according to the museum. The cemetery remained in use until about 1800, when the town established Laurel Hill Cemetery on Pine Nook Road.
Sprague’s demonstration, Carlson’s lecture and the Old Burying Ground tour are included with general admission to Historic Deerfield, which is $18 for adults, $5 for kids aged 13 to 17 and free for kids 12 and under. Deerfield residents and museum members also get free admission.
Chris Larabee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-930-4081.