Updated: Aug 22, 2021
Gravestone carving was a craft tradition but remains an under-appreciated and often overlooked art form. Each cutter had his own style, both in lettering and design work, which allows their work to be identified by experts, even without a signature. The designs are often reflective of the times. The earliest stones in the 1600s and 1700s, carry foreboding and forbidding effigies of winged skulls and sometimes crossbones, meant to remind one of mortality. As decades passed, these depictions evolved into winged angels or generic faces, then, by the start of the 1800s, these designs gave way to the more secular neo-classical symbols of urns and willows. By the mid-19th century, machine-made stones became available and the hand-carved gravestones fell out of favor.
As one can imagine, having been founded in 1741, Old Parish Cemetery has a fine selection of ancient stones done by various stone carvers. One of these is Michael Gallagher.
Born in County Longford in Ireland in 1813, Gallagher emigrated to America in 1828, became a U.S. citizen, married, and settled in Canton, Massachusetts, in 1840. In addition to stone carving, Gallagher and his wife kept the tollgate on what is now Route 138. Eventually, they moved to a house on Washington Street across from today’s Canton High School. Gallagher set up his shop there; he worked in both slate and marble. There are several examples of his work in Old Parish.
The double stone of Elizabeth and Jonathan Dean – erected long after their deaths by their sons, as noted on the stone – has Gallagher’s signature. Not all stones do.
Elizabeth Bullard (1841) and Olive Dean Bullard (1843) are also in slate. Gallagher’s willows have a complex internal branching which is distinctive and his urns have a crest-shaped interior design with small scallops.
Gallagher also worked in marble. His signature was uncovered by Old Parish Volunteers when resetting the stones of Deborah and Samuel Dean. Like the double-stone of Elizabeth and Jonathan Dean, Samuel’s stone was completed later (he died in 1823), probably to match Deborah’s (she died in 1847). Gallagher’s signature was also found at the base of the small marble stone of Maria Angelia Dean, who died in 1847 at 18 months. This stone was reset in spring, 2000.
Records indicate that Michael Gallagher completed at least 237 stones, scattered in cemeteries throughout the area. He died in 1855 at the age of 42 and is buried in Canton Corner Cemetery.