Behold all you that passeth by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you must be
Prepare for death and follow me
It’s a cliché by now: surely this poem was written by some Gothic New Englander looking back on the Puritan days with a morbid fascination, like Hawthorne. One can easily hear the folksy voice of Bing Crosby sneaking it into a scene in the old Disney cartoon of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But in fact, this was a very real sentiment inscribed on hundreds if not thousands of gravestones in the 18th century.
Several are right here in Lexington.
The Puritans were an interesting bunch. Believing in the theology of predestination, they operated under the assumption that their place both in life and death had been chosen by God even before their birth: He knew exactly whether each and every one of us was destined for Heaven or Hell, pulled along by the twisted hands of fate. Of course, this only went so far, as adherence to laws and outward displays of good works were both within one’s control and a sign of salvation. And in a world in which war, disease, and natural disasters were all too common, death was a constant neighbor. To that end, they filled their sermons and their lives with reminders that none of us are long for this world, and that we had better shape up while we still can.
Walking into the Old Burying Ground from its oldest side (near St. Bridget’s Church) you are treated to the perfect October sight: neat rows of gravestones adorned with skulls and crossbones, empty hourglasses, and Latin inscriptions of memento mori (remember death) and fugit hora (time flies). Just in case visiting the dead was not enough of a reminder of your own mortality, the ancestors wanted to make sure you remember where your final resting place will be, by any pictographic means necessary if you don’t read Latin. The earliest gravestones are the most grim; by the 18th century the skulls had grown flesh to represent the spirit, but the old sentiments remained in the writing on the stones. Ruth Buckman, tavernkeeper in Lexington in 1775, lies under a “Behold all you” inscription, and similar sentiments echo throughout the burying ground.
By the early 19th century, these fatalistic reminders of death had given way to romanticization, as the harsh physical iconography of bones gave way entirely to abstract symbols like weeping willow trees and classical urns. Cemeteries became more than mere repositories for the dead as landscapers created rolling hills and trees to soften the imagery. All these years later though, it is the iconic “death’s head” of the winged skull and the eerie poetry beneath that still captures the imagination this time of year. The meaning is still clear: always remember death, because it will certainly remember you.
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
As an art historian it’s become innate in my habits to walk into any room and look at objects, and with looking at those objects come the questions of who made it, what was/is it used for, when was it made and why is it important (more on that concept later). We’re surrounded by objects in our life - some utilitarian, some precious treasures which hold memories, and others somewhere in between.
The reason I became an art historian, and then decided to work in the museum field, is partly because I was always intrigued by the questions surrounding objects. I remember walking into the Tate Britain my junior year of high school and stopping cold in front of a particular painting (Ophelia by John Everett Millais) and all of a sudden wanting to know everything about it. I’d come to learn later that my desire to know about that work of art was the study of art history. Added on to this thirst for knowledge about art and objects was an equally rich need to share my knowledge with others, if I know about these amazing artworks than everyone else should know too! Further to my education I would come to learn that this fell into the world of museum education, and my eternal gratitude goes to Dr. Tom Somma at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA for teaching and guiding me to the path I’m on today.
The path has been winding for sure, with curves I never thought I would take, and thankfully it has now led me to Lexington Historical Society as the new Executive Director. One of the major reasons I accepted the position was the depth of the history surrounding the four sites overseen by LHS. How can you not be in awe of houses that literally saw the birth of our country? And the fact that they are still standing, still here for us and future generations is thanks to all who came before us and lends gravitas to me and my staff being stewards of that history now. Tied into this is how do we make these sites speak to contemporary audiences and showcase our collection in new and interesting ways to get people just as excited about the stories behind objects as I am.
One of the first things I did, week one of my tenure, was walk through each site and take notes on the interpretations, and anything that came to mind for the future. What ended up happening though as well, and it came as no surprise to me, is I would stop every minute or two to take macro photos of various collections objects. On my off days you’ll find me stretching my photographer muscles, and macro photography is a love of mine. So as I walked through Buckman Tavern, Hancock-Clarke House, and Munroe Tavern I stopped, slowed down and really looked at the smaller objects in the collection. When you slow down it’s amazing what you’ll find and see, and whether it’s the light coming through the stopper of a decanter, the tulip decoration on a jar, or the decorations on a tea cup it begs the question what is the story behind this object?
Sometimes as museum professionals we get caught up in dates, famous names, preserving the collection at all costs, which is all important and valid. But at the heart of the mission, in my eyes, is to tell the stories of the objects and the people connected to them. Sometime, two hundred years ago, someone was using that decanter during dinner, just as people are doing today. These objects are witnesses to history and can connect us to that history through shared experiences, feelings and purpose.
Museums and historic sites are here to educate, to embrace the community we serve, and first and foremost to tell the stories of the people and objects which have come before us. It is also our job, and so important to me as the new Director of LHS, to continue those stories through weaving them with contemporary narratives and art to continue our mission for the next two hundred years.
-Carol S. Ward, Executive Director
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.