The splendid Episcopal Cemetery in Elizabeth City, N.C., is a must-see for any taphoholics visiting the Outer Banks. Here I focus on a variant of a common grave type which I’ve never seen before—I almost walked past without looking twice.
At first sight we’re dealing with a typical grave of a dead infant or child (figure 1); the decapitated lamb atop the headstone and the small size of the grave assures us of that. The stone bears several regular bits of iconography: inverted torches on each side to signify life snuffed out; flowers trailing like garlands from the scallop shell above the center of the inscribed tablet. The details of the bundled rods of the torches and the flowers are quite nice.
In memory of
infant daughter of
James W. & Susan S.
born Feb 19, 1856,
died July 26, 1858,
aged 2 yrs 5 mos.
& 7 days
The inscription bears out the clue to the inhabitant’s tender age provided by the lamb. The little plot has a sculpted marble border on the long sides and a foot stone terminating the space. Like so many graves in this cemetery, the Hinton one has suffered from the elements and the vandal hand of man, and the border is all askew. What did finally catch my eye were the curiously scalloped shapes of the borders and footstone. When I imagined how the plot must have looked when it was fresh, it hit me that the grave had been imagined here as a cradle. The scalloped forms are the carved wooden sides of the cradle, and it makes sense then that the scallops are taller by the head than by the foot.
A quick search online turns up vintage cradles that mostly have straight sides. I have borrowed two images (figures 3, 4) to illustrate what I mean about more complicated shapes. No cradle I saw online closely matches the Hinton grave, but then, the latter was assembled by a stonecutter, not a carpenter, and needed do no more than evoke a cradle for sentimental purposes and provide a small garden plot.
The specialness of the Hinton grave can be seen by contrasting it with figure 5, another, less elaborate cradle-grave a few feet away. I could not find any indication of who inhabits the grave (the headstone appears to be blank, and the grave is not part of a family ensemble), but its size appears to guarantee that we are dealing with a child. Here, rectilinear blocks serve as bases for the head- and footstone; the former is a plain slab with rounded corners, the latter a pediment-shaped stone which once apparently bore an urn, now broken off and sitting inside the little plot. The sides of the cradle are simple undulating shapes that you might find in any gardening store today.
The purpose of the type was to offer scope for plantings; the family could commune with the dead during trips to the cemetery to tend the plantings. The supergroup to which our two graves belong is called “cradle-grave.” A 2017 Hidden City article discusses the type while featuring urban Philadelphia gardeners who adopt and tend such cradle graves in Woodlands Cemetery. As far as I can see, the Woodlands cases (and one sees them often enough elsewhere) are generic: the “cradle” shape emerges from a desire to have a small segregated plot for planting right over the grave, whereas the Hinton grave appears to have started with the conceit that the monument was a cradle which was then suitable for planting. There are several examples of these generic cradle-graves in Episcopal Cemetery beyond the anonymous one in figure 5. Four of them, now overgrown, bear plaques stating that the garden was tended by the ladies of Episcopal Cemetery: so the Hintons will have had models to follow. And Episcopal furnishes another clear example in the cradle-grave of the later (and older) C. R. Grandy (1869-1909: figure 6).
The Emma Hinton grave is the first example I have yet seen of a cradle-grave for a child which intentionally, I think, crosses the ground from a gardening plot that resembles a cradle, to a cradle that also serves as a gardening plot.
For further reading, see this post at the A Grave Interest blog, which shows some further examples of (I think) adult cradle-graves. In addition to being another article on the topic, this post in the Laurel Hill Cemetery Blog also offers in its first illustration a good specimen of an ornately bordered cradle-grave.