The Most Poignant Epitaph Ever

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.

Epitaph 026

Epitaph 030

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.

Epitaph Cousins 1890s 2p

Epitaph Cousins 1890sp

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?

Epitaph 038

23 responses to “The Most Poignant Epitaph Ever

  • Piper B

    Dear Donna, I love your blog and read every post. Unfortunately, I’m not that bright! What is your interpretation of Winters in the World? I have my thoughts. Thank you!

  • Piper B

    Of course. I miss read the line. I read it as two sentences. As Roseanne Roseannadanna would say ” Never mind” ( lol – showing my age:)

  • Mary Woodcock

    Dearest Donna, I recently “found” your blog and am thrilled to read your posts. As a long term resident of Salem I’m discovering Salem all over again. Thank you for your talent. I appreciate you sharing your gift of prose.

  • ninacohenenski

    And does the stone rest on his body, or his ashes?

    • daseger

      Well there you are, another great question. Generally I think they use ashes metaphorically, as in “dust to dust”, but you never know.

      • Brian Bixby

        It’s said that 1792 cremation of Henry Laurens, one of the American diplomats who helped draw up the Treaty of Paris in 1783, was the first of a European-descended person in what is now the United States.

  • Sara McDaren

    What a difference the surroundings make! Apparently, I am not a fan of chain link.

    I have a few favorite epitaphs – “I was once where you are,” “Asleep in Jesus,” “I told you I was sick.”

    Do you think calling him an “aged person that had seen but nineteen winters” was a way of saying that he was wise beyond his years?

  • Rick Ouellette

    Great post and photos as always. Have looked at this gravestone at least a few times but was unaware of the story behind it. Thanks.

  • Pearl

    Just curious. Is there a reason that I missed for you spelling Nathanael, Nathaneal throughout? I’m also wondering why the carver used the old style ‘s’ that looks like an ‘f’ to us for the words, ‘person’ and ‘seen’, but used the more modern ‘s’, for the word, ‘winters’. I find that extremely odd. Thanks for doing a post about this. Those s’s have been bugging me for a really long time.

    • daseger

      Hello Pearl, well the f/s spelling has a long convoluted history and practice in early modern period, but the f use generally comes in the MIDDLE of words–so that seems standard. I followed the spelling of Nathaneal that is used on the grave–it is generally modernized as Nathaniel in other places.

      • Pearl

        Thanks for your reply. Look carefully at the pictures you took. It is clearly spelled Nathanael, with an “ael”, not an “eal”. That’s why I was asking. Also that “f ” is at the beginning of the word, “seem”, not at the end….or were you meaning the f use comes in the middle of a sentence, not a word? 🙂

      • daseger

        Oh well that’s just my mis-spelling then! I see you are correct, and about the f/s too–that seen is odd. I think I’ve got to go back and do some seventeenth-century script comparisons. Thanks, Pearl

      • Pearl

        Thank you too! Sometimes I think I wonder about things that don’t really need wondered about….but to no avail, I can’t stop thinking about them. Please let me know what you find, if anything.

      • daseger

        I think something is mysterious about this inscription–so every little detail is a clue!

      • Pearl

        And of course, a typo could always be a possibility. It’s hard to erase a carving!

  • Pearl

    I forgot to add in my previous post that stone carver, William Mumford carved Nathanael Mather’s gravestone. He was a Quaker that carved stones for Puritans from 1681-1718. At the time, Quakers chose not to mark their graves.

    • daseger

      Thanks, Pearl. I’m hearing some other names too but Mumford certainly makes sense with these dates.

      • Pearl

        From what I’ve read, a Mumford carving is known for certain qualities….round-eyed death heads with a calm expression, no eyebrows, 2 rows of carefully cut teeth and nose formed by two triangles, one inside each other; pears, leaves, and pumpkins in the border; simple disc, concentric or coil finials; the use of ‘Here Lyeth’, or ‘Here Lies’; ‘thee’ is always written ‘ye’. Nat’s gravestone seems to fit much of that criteria.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: