Gravestone Girls: Bringing New England Cemeteries to Life
By Joanna Wendel
Most people take their Halloween decorations out of storage every October and then pack them away until the following year. For Brenda Sullivan, however, skulls, skeletons, and other spooky motifs are a year-round obsession.
As the founder of Gravestone Girls, Sullivan has built a thriving business creating replicas of New England gravestones, many of which were made before 1800. She also gives lectures, tours, and gravestone rubbing classes. As an entrepreneur and educator, Sullivan has created a unique niche for herself, attracting people from diverse backgrounds who are curious to learn more about the history of gravestones.
Sullivan grew up in Massachusetts and absorbed an interest in the history of art and design from her mother, an antiques dealer, and her father, an art restorer. She often spent time in a local cemetery where members of her family have been buried since the 19th century, marveling at the intriguing images found on colonial-era gravestones. “I never felt uncomfortable in cemeteries,” recalls Sullivan. Instead, she thought of them as a tantalizing window into the past. This longstanding interest ultimately led her to an unusual career.
An artisan’s secret
After studying gravestones for years, Sullivan began to experiment with making her own replicas. She has developed a secret method for making casts of gravestones that reproduce the original carved motifs at life size. Sullivan starts with an impression of a stone that she translates to a rubber master mold, allowing her to produce multiple casts. She finishes each cast by hand, using paints and stains to mimic the look of weathered stone. Sullivan usually chooses a single motif from a larger stone to replicate, although she has reproduced entire gravestones, often on commission.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sullivan reports that replicas featuring skulls and skeletons are her most popular products. Celestial motifs are also popular, as are urns of flowers and willows. Although the same basic motifs tend to appear on gravestones over and over, Sullivan keeps her eye out for interesting variants to add to her collection.
Sullivan is often invited to speak at libraries, historical societies, and genealogical societies. She also gives walking tours of cemeteries throughout New England, frequently partnering with local historians who can identify the graves of notable residents. Although Sullivan has not been able to conduct these activities in person for most of 2020, she has widened the geographic reach of her audience through virtual lectures and tours.
Under normal circumstances, Sullivan offers classes on gravestone rubbing, a satisfying way to create a record of a carved stone. According to Sullivan, there’s a common misconception that gravestone rubbing is against the law. Although it is legal, it must be pursued with the utmost diligence and care. If you’re interested in trying gravestone rubbing for yourself, Sullivan offers the following guidelines. First, always get permission from the cemetery’s administrator. Second, find an experienced person—check your local historical or genealogical society—to teach you the correct technique; Sullivan originally learned from a Rhode Island historian. Third, learn to identify the right type of stone to use for a rubbing. Slate, for example, is a popular choice because it’s particularly durable. Fourth, always put a soft, protective barrier between the stone and your chosen medium. And finally, make sure to leave the stone as clean as you found it—again, follow advice from an expert about proper cleaning procedures, or you risk damaging the stone. When done properly, rubbings can be a useful tool for historians. If a stone deteriorates over time, the rubbing can become a valuable record of its previous state.
The resources section of the Gravestone Girls website offers a glossary of gravestone iconography, as well as a list of other organizations dedicated to the study and preservation of gravestones. One notable resource is the Farber collection of gravestone photographs, which has been completely digitized by the American Antiquarian Society. This database contains 14,000 black and white images of 9,000 gravestones, all searchable by name, date, location, and motif.
Sullivan believes that the audience for her work has increased over time as genealogical research has become more mainstream. “I’ve found that a lot of people like cemeteries, but are afraid to admit it,” she says. The success of Gravestone Girls suggests that if you enjoy a well-carved winged skull, you’re far from alone.