SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 4, 2013

Art for the dead

Gravestone Girls to give virtual tour of cemeteries

By Alanah Percy
Gordon College News Service

---- — DANVERS — Brenda Sullivan always cherished the time she spent in the cemetery. When she was a child growing up in Southborough, her mom would take her on frequent visits to the family burial ground to take gravestone rubbings, impressions of a headstone made on paper using a pencil or a piece of charcoal.

“They’re peaceful, quiet places that are safe and full of history,” said Sullivan, 43. “They are just as much for the living as they are for the dead.”

Those visits stayed with Sullivan, and after leaving a job with an international shoe manufacturer, she connected with two other gravestone enthusiasts, Melissa Anderson, 43, of Worcester and Maggie White, 34, of Southborough.

The three began traveling to cemeteries around Massachusetts, across the United States and occasionally overseas and coined the name “Gravestone Girls.”

Soon, they began making three-dimensional gravestone rubbings and selling their work through small art shows, friends and families.

“Nothing says Happy Birthday or Merry Christmas like a gravestone,” Sullivan said.

The business has now expanded to include everything from private commissions and tombstone replications to locating family stones and public programming at local libraries.

On Wednesday, the Peabody Institute Library in Danvers will host the Gravestone Girls for a 90-minute virtual tour of Danvers cemeteries. The tour will include images ranging from Colonial burial grounds through those of the 21st century and is free to the public.

“We are very excited to hear their perspective,” said Donna Maturi, head of reference services at the library. “We contracted them to do research in the area because it has a rich Colonial history.”

To some, the art of gravestone rubbing might seem gruesome or grim.

“We always have one person run out of our sessions with their arms flailing because they are put off by the work we do,” Sullivan said.

But there is much more to the art than morbid encounters with the dead. In fact, the practice of gravestone rubbing is becoming increasingly common and popular among academics and scholars as a way to preserve history and record genealogy.

According to the Association of Grave Studies in Greenfield, gravestones display the cultural significance of a society by telling the public about societal norms of the past, as well as family lineages and the effect of disease on the population.

For instance, some gravestones have special seals that are common among families, while others give details such as “died of tuberculosis” or “died while giving birth.” With more than 1,000 members, the association has annual conferences around the United States and has been in existence for more than 40 years.

Not only is the gravestone culture significant for preserving history, but it also serves as a platform for educating youth. Holding cemetery scavenger hunts and practicing grave rubbings can give kids a different perspective of the graveyard, one marked by respect for those who have passed on.

“This is your history. These are open-air museums, free of charge,” Sullivan said. “It’s a chance to walk into a burial ground and meet someone from the past.”

MEET THE GRAVESTONE GIRLS

What: Virtual tour of Danvers cemeteries

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Peabody Institute Library, 15 Sylvan St., Danvers

Admission: Free

More information: 978-774-0554