THE FACES OF OLD PARISH
If you have ever walked through a colonial era graveyard, you will see rather foreboding winged skulls, death’s heads, and sometimes even crossbones carved in slate, a reminder that death was nothing to trifle with. As decades passed, these depictions slowly evolved into winged angels or nondescript cherubs.
By the mid- to late 18th century, however, gravestone art began to incorporate portraiture. At this point, the slate gravestones’ tympanum (or arch) began to depict the faces of men, women, and children, with a hint of character.
Most of these effigies were not actually representative images of the deceased. Stones were often completed by the cutters when they had free time, before a particular death had occurred. The tablet was left blank, its lettering to be completed as needed. Other stones were commissioned long after a burial. Thus, the face on the stone was generic.
Some, however, were detailed depictions and actually bore a resemblance to the deceased. A few incorporated the proper clothing, hairstyle, or accessories to become even more distinctive and accurate. According to gravestone historian Harriette Merrifield Forbes, some of these portraits in stone “give us the only suggestion we have of what some minister, school teacher, or honored ancestor” looked like.
None of the gravestones in Old Parish Cemetery are that personalized or elaborate. They are, however, a charming group, some more intriguing than others. All of them have been there for about 250 years, however, waiting for you to come by and say hello.
THE OBELISKS OF OLD PARISH
In the mid 19thcentury American cemeteries and burial grounds began to sprout ancient cultures’ art forms to memorialize the lives of those interred there. A common monument throughout Ancient Egypt was tekhenu. The Greeks who saw these Egyptian monuments used the Greek term 'obeliskos' to describe them, and this word passed into Latin and ultimately to English as obelisk. During the 19thcentury early American design motifs were heavily influenced by ancient cultures, Greek revival, classic revival classical studies and dress.
The obelisk is best described asa tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape or pyramidion at the top. Obelisks in ancient times were typically carved from one stone with pure uplifting lines and took up relatively little space at their base. Left uncarved, they were less costly than large elaborate sculpted monuments. Egyptians typically placed a pair of obelisks at the entrance to their temples to mark the path inside. The Romans quickly appropriated the obelisk shape and soon the structure spread throughout the Roman empire to the point where there were more “Egyptian” style obelisks outside of Egypt than in Egypt.
One of the earliest obelisk monuments in America is the Constitution Monument in St. Augustine, Florida erected in 1814. Closer to home the Bunker Hill Monument standing 221 feet high was constructed between 1825-1843. This monument constructed of blocks of Quincy granite commemorates the Battle of Bunker Hill June 17, 1775.
The more well-known American obelisk is the Washington Monument completed in 1884 standing 555 feet high, one of the tallest in the world, and was inspired by the Bunker Hill monument.
Norwood’s Old Parish Cemetery was 100 years old when the obelisk shape began to appear in America’s cemeteries. We are fortunate to have several examples in our cemetery that are stunning in their setting and gleam white once our volunteers have cleaned them.
OLD PARISH BURIAL GROUND HISTORY
Norwood was originally a part of Dedham, known as South Dedham. The General Court laws, then in power, required that all residents pay taxes in support of Dedham’s Church of Christ, whether or now they were voting members of the church community. In the early 1700s, parishioners in this portion of the town petitioned for permission to establish their own place of worship and to cease paying ministerial taxes to the Dedham church. This request was finally granted and the General Court sanctioned the establishment of a new parish district, known as the Second Precinct or South Parish, in 1730. The Parish called its first minister, Rev. Thomas Balch, in 1736.
In 1741, one indication of the area’s growing sense of independence was the establishment of its own graveyard which would allow villagers to be buried within the parish itself rather than traveling all the way to Dedham. Parishioner Ebenezer Woodward granted to the South Parish free of charge three quarters of an acre of land, at a place called Sandy Hill, to be “used as a Burying Place forever.” This Parish Burial Ground was carved out of a piece of hilly terrain at the northern end of the village.
In 1827, Lewis and Hannah Rhoads were paid $40 – an amount raised by individual subscription by parishioners – for about an acre of land “in triangular form” for the purpose of enlarging the Burying Ground. This is the area which contains these tombs on the right side of the graveyard as we enter from Washington Street.
Originally, the grave yard was entered via Cemetery St., close to what is now Central Street.
The next change in the graveyard came in the early 1850s. According to Fred Holland Day’s research, “part of our burying ground was washed away by a great storm shortly after the railroad was put through in too close proximity to the old portion of the graveyard.” And, if you look at early 1850s maps, the graveyard is depicted as extending all the way to the railroad tracks. The tracks were put down in 1849. Day goes on to say that “There is no record of the many graves so destroyed, but it is certain that no small number disappeared at that time.”
In 1885, a late severe storm caused a great deal of damage to the bridges and culverts in town. The bridge on Short Street washed away and the large culvert under Washington Street near the high bridge had to be re-laid. There was no mention of the Old Parish cemetery; however, the town did seek authorization from the State to lower the grade of the old parish cemetery, in that portion adjoining the location of the railroad, “to remove, replace and re-inter the remains of the dead and the monuments erected to their memory.” Standing on this hill, it does not appear those plans were carried out BUT, the following year’s town report indicated an expenditure for “grading Old Cemetery” and erecting a retaining wall, likely the wall that is there today. The wall was laid by Matt Drummey.