The Old Burying Point is a sacred site best visited in the winter, or the summer, or the spring, or anytime other than October when costume-clad tourists are not draped over the graves taking pictures of each other. I prefer winter, because the very gnarly trees are bare, and nothing other than these same trees competes with the graves themselves. I was walking by the other day, thinking about the very recent death of a young scholar whom I knew, when I remembered a famous epitaph on a seventeenth-century grave of another young scholar: Nathanael Mather, son of Increase, and brother of Cotton. Nathanael died in Salem in 1688 at aged 19 and his grave is located on the western perimeter of the cemetery, just behind the Peabody/”Grimshawe” house. I went through the gate, turned right, and there he was, there it was, the most poignant epitaph ever.
An Aged person/ that had seen but Nineteen Winters in the World.
An Aged person that had seen but Nineteen Winters in the World is a sentiment that is immediately and universally affective, and timeless: as moving now as it was when it was inscribed in 1688 (or later? see below). There are testimonies to these words that date back to the early nineteenth century; no doubt there are far more that I am aware of. Hawthorne incorporated a similar epitaph into his first novel Fanshawe for the title character (one imagines him sneaking out back before or after he visited his future wife Sophia at the Grimshawe house) and Lovecraft referenced it a century later. In between, my favorite photographer Frank Cousins gave it pride of place in a portfolio of Salem images which he marketed nationally.
The Grave in the 1890s
And what of Nathanael, the inspiration for this memorable epitaph? By all accounts he was a young man feverish with the desire to learn, both for his own sake and as way to know and glorify God, and this “fever” ultimately killed him. His “unusual industry” drove him to enter Harvard University at age 12, and during his time there he mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and wrote several books. His “pious education” continued after his graduation, and he followed a disciplined regime of constant study and prayer which rendered him a virtual shut-in. Real fevers set in, and “distemper”, and ultimately he was sent to Salem as a patient of Dr. John Swinnerton, at whose home he eventually died. His elder brother Cotton Mather, who apparently “closed his dying eyes” wrote later that it may be truly written on his Grave, Study kill’d him. In his Diary, Samuel Sewall recounts visiting Nathaneal at Dr. Swinnerton’s and, quite perplexingly, an alternative epitaph: the Ashes of a hard Student, a good Scholar, and a great Christian, which is also asserted in Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. So now we have an epitaph mystery: are both Sewall and Mather mistaken, or do we have an instance of an “enlightened” epitaph substitution at some later date?