Let’s Get Stoned

The world of funerary decoration ranges from the cultural to the personal, essentially following the evolution of society’s view of the individual life. Eighteenth century gravestones reveal very little about the individual life of the dead person commemorated by the stone over their body. The Romantic movement is acknowledged to have begun in 1798 with the publication of Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.

Willow and urn at Pioneer Cemetery

It takes a while for cultural trends to trickle down to the “common man,” the kind of person whose grave you encounter in a country burial ground. The Romantic influence was certainly nowhere in evidence in the Goodwin Jones Pioneer Cemetery on Gorge Road in Ulysses, New York. The graveyard has the appearance of a place that has been abandoned for a long, long time and then recently rediscovered, recently reaffirmed.

In the Pioneer Cemetery the dominant motif is the weeping willow.

”The first half of the 19th century was quite interested in the Greeks and Romans because they were republics and we were a new democracy. There was a great interest in Greek architecture during that time as well, up till around middle of that century. So naturally, gravestones reflected this. The urn and willow, as you probably know, was very popular. The urn was used by Greeks to keep the ashes of the cremated, but why the willow? Well, it was a symbol of the Underworld goddesses, mostly notably Persephone. Also, Orpheus, when he went to the Underworld, brought along a willow branch. This apparently helped him get his gift of speech because, as you might know, Orpheus was a famous poet.” Graveaddiction.com

Central New York was settled by veterans of the Revolutionary War after 1792. Which is to say, they started dying in the early 19th century. Their gravestones routinely incorporate the traditional weeping willow imagery. In the Pioneer Cemetery it is quite obvious that the same stone carver made each of the willow engravings in the stone; they are almost exactly the same.

“The cypress was long considered as the appropriate ornament of the cemetery; but its gloomy shade among the tombs, and its thick, heavy foliage of the darkest green, inspire only depressing thoughts, and present death under its most appalling image, whilst the weeping willow, on the contrary, rather conveys a picture of the grief felt for the loss of the departed than of the darkness of the grave. Its light and elegant foliage flows like the disheveled hair and graceful drapery of a sculptured mourner over a sepulchral urn, and conveys those soothing, though melancholy reflections that made the poet write, ‘Tis better to have lov’d and lost, Than never to have lov’d at all.’” 20/20 Site

Trilliums on the grave of Dr. Biggs (d. 1923)

As the Romantic movement reached downward from the likes of the poets and into the middle class, personal botanical preferences began to appear on gravestones.  By the early 20th century even physicians were incorporating their favorite plants into their tombstones. Hermann Michael Biggs was born in Trumansburg, New York in 1859—the Victorian Era—and passed away in 1923, the early Modern period.

Biggs attended Cornell University in the 1870s, pursuing a degree in medicine, and he studied abroad in France with Pasteur and in Germany with Koch, absorbing the then new germ theory. Biggs brought the germ theory back to the U.S. and became a prominent public health official, first as general medical officer for the city of New York and later as the commissioner of health for the state. He introduced the idea of quarantine to American public heath, for which he is both vilified (for its breach of civil rights) and lionized (for its recognition of the communicable nature of disease).

Close-up of trillium on Biggs gravestone

He had a summer retreat in the Adirondacks that he called “Camp Trillium,” and when he died and was buried in Grove Cemetery in Trumansburg, his tombstone was adorned with carved trillium flowers. Unlike the weeping willow, which has a general cultural connotation of grief, the trillium was a purely personal attachment of Hermann Biggs. This is a clear evocation of the Modernist sensibility that was prevalent in the last twenty-five years of his life. Modernism favored individual expression over faithful evocation of cultural convention. His wife was buried beside him and her tombstone is also adorned with carved trillium.

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Services and Fishes

Amelanchier blossom

As you drive through the northeast in April before the leaves have burst, you will notice white-flowered trees dotting the understory of forested hills. Some of these are cherries—black and choke; pin cherries are later—but many are Amelanchier canadensis and A. arborea.

The Amelanchier have a habit that differs from the cherries, distinguished by the geometric arrangement of the cloud of flowers. While the Prunus (cherry) species produce billowing patterns of white against the gray and light green of the spring canopy, the Amelanchier have a more stratocumulus array, hung in subparallel ranks around the central trunk or trunks.

Amelanchier canadensis

All of these are members of the Rosaceae, which also includes the later flowering fruit trees—apples, plums and pears—that flower after their leaves are out of the bud. The Amelanchier genus is diverse and widespread in North America. The species commonly interbreed, and so are difficult to tell apart. In the east we have A. arborea, which is generally an upland species, and A. canadenisis, which likes wetter feet and is more common in New England and maritime Canada.

Amelanchier has at least three common names, which vary by region. Two of these names refer to its time of flowering. “Serviceberry” (spelled “sarvisberry” in the Appalachians, based on the local accent) is related to religious services, according to many sources. Some folk etymologies insist this has to do with the thawing of the ground in April, which allows for burial services to take place. Historically, bodies could not be buried in the winter and were stored until the thaw in a vault at the cemetery. This origin is suspect if serviceberry is a common name in the southern part of this genus’s range where the ground does not freeze in the winter.

More tenuous sources suggest that the traveling ministers resumed their services in rural parishes in April after taking the winter off from their rounds. This has credence only because the colonial history of the United States—roughly the 17th and 18th centuries—coincided with the tail end of the Little Ice Age, a cold snap that began in the Renaissance. This gives the impression that winters used to be colder that they are now.  However, in the Middle Ages it was warmer than it is now (the “medieval warm period”), making it possible to grow grapes in England and for the Vikings to settle Greenland.

Amelanchier arborea

Another service-related origin story connects the popular name for Amelanchier with the significance of Easter services, which always occur between late March and mid-April. This explanation doesn’t have anything to do with the severity of winter climate, but depends on whether you believe that someone passing a flowering tree on the way to church would name it based on the immediate destination.

The final story that attempts to explain “serviceberry” stems from a corruption of Sorbus. This genus is also a member of the Rosaceae, and is well known in Europe as the rowan, mountain ash or service tree. The last name is a slurred variation of the Latin genus name, which is derived from the Old English syrfe. It is purely an aural association, since neither the Latin nor the Old English names are related to the verb “to serve” in either language.

A species of mountain ash is also found in the New World and the leaves of Sorbus are pinnate and rounded. That is, it doesn’t look much like an Amelanchier, which has larger, single leaves with pointed tips. However, both are small understory trees that tend to be multi-trunked. and have white flowers. Given that the American robin received the same name as the European robin in spite of having little in common other than a red breast, it seems believable that Amelanchier could have been dubbed “serviceberry” for its resemblance to Sorbus.

American shad

The even more poetic name for Amelanchier along the east coast of the United States is “shadbush” or, more esoterically, “shadblow” (apparently another slurring corruption). A. canadenesis is often found along waterways, so the association with the anadromous herring isn’t far-fetched. The American shad (Alosa sapadissima) runs up rivers along eastern North America from maritime Canada to the St. John’s River in Florida. (Other species run up rivers in the Gulf of Mexico.) The shad most definitely begin to run in April, and they run in large numbers. In many rivers this was (and to some extent still is) a commercially harvested fish. It is excessively bony, but the flesh is sweet and light.

Anadromous” fish live most of their lives in salt water and run up rivers into fresh water to breed. They are plankton feeders in the ocean, but they do not feed once they enter fresh water, which probably lightens and sweetens the taste of their flesh.  “Catadromous” fish live in fresh water and migrate to salt water to breed. Eels are the best-known example of this life cycle.

During one summer in graduate school I worked on the fish ladders on the Connecticut River. Atlantic salmon (another anadromous fish) was being reintroduced to the drainage. We were charged with catching every tenth salmon that went by and counting all the shad and blueback herring (another shad species; Alosa aestivalis) that swam by the observation window. Now, whenever I drive through the countryside and I see the shadbushes blooming, I see in my mind’s eye the rushing crush of thousands of shad bodies drawn upriver to the shadows of the Amelanchier to spawn in the shallows of clear, stony streams.