Prior to the sixteenth century’s Protestant Reformation there were few formal burying grounds for those who were not nobles. The remains of royalty, nobility, and high-ranking clergy members were often entombed in the walls of churches and cathedrals, with the areas closest to the altar being reserved for the most important members of society.
The social changes spurred on by the Reformation – and the necessity of finding new spaces with the walls of churches nearing their capacity – led to the dead being interred in burial grounds, often known as God’s Acres. The emergence of these cemeteries opened up the possibility of a tombstone for members of the middle class, which meant an opportunity to be remembered.
Much of New England’s tombstone art followed the lead of the Puritans, who were particularly macabre in their engravings. Puritan theology held that only the “Elect” would make it to heaven; the rest of mankind just died, were buried, and rotted in the ground. These beliefs are reflected in Puritan gravestone art, with the classic words, “Here lies of the body of …” engraved below a skull or skull and crossbones.
However, a loosening of the grip of conservative Puritanism led to more optimistic gravestones, with skulls being swapped for human faces, and crossbones giving way to angels’ wings. Equally telling is a subtle change in the wording, with “Here lies the body of …” often giving way to “Here lies the mortal remains,” language that allowed for the possibility of a human soul.
For more information on cemetery art, see Douglas Keister’s excellent Stories in Stone.
An outstanding job of brush clearing along Rt. 202 between Litchfield and Torrington has recovered the Van Winkle Gate of the East Cemetery.
East Cemetery, Litchfield’s largest, is, according to Alain White’s history of the town, the third oldest cemetery in town. White identifies West Cemetery, established in 1723 as the oldest but does not state what is second. In 1754 a committee consisting of Samuel Culver, Joshua Garritt, and Edward Phelps was formed to lay out a new cemetery closer to town. Their work was finished in January 1755. As is evident from the plaque above (which adorns the right side of the gateway), Edgar Van Winkle, Sr. served as president for the Litchfield Cemetery Association for 27 years. Van Winkle was a Union College educated civil engineer and Union Army veteran who rose to be chief engineer of New York’s Department of Public Works. He also worked for the Shepaug Railroad.
On the left side of the gate are biblical quotations. The first is: “Then shall the Dust return to the Earth as it was and the Spirit to God who gave it” from Ecclesiastes. The second is: “Blessed are the Dead which die in the LORD that they may rest from their labors & their works do follow them” from Revelation.
Originally the area of the cemetery behind the gate was designated for use as a highway, but when the cemetery expanded in 1837, the town voted to give the highway land to the Litchfield Cemetery Association that still maintains the grounds. The stonewalls alongside the Route 118 frontage of the cemetery were built by public subscription in 1850. The southeast corner of the cemetery – along this road – contains unmarked graves of Revolutionary War soldiers.
The entrance to the cemetery on Route 118 is dedicated to the memory of Edgar Van Winkle, Jr., who also served as president of the Litchfield Cemetery Association.