Cemetery Musings: What's in a Name?

A musing is defined in the dictionary as “a product of contemplation; a thought”.  As I wander through cemeteries, I am often thinking about the stones above the ground and the individuals that lie beneath. Why that epitaph, that symbol, that style of writing? These are just some of the “cemetery musings” that cross my mind.

On a recent trip to Massachusetts to celebrate our anniversary, John and I returned to Ipswitch to visit The Old Burying Ground, an amazing cemetery dating back to 1634. We had been here once before but couldn’t explore because of the deluge of rain that accompanied us. As luck would have it, today was sunny and bright, not a hint of rain; a perfect day to explore the cemetery.

As I wandered through the stones, swatting at the millions of mosquitos that were also enjoying the day, I noticed a small stone that bore three portraits at the top. It was the final resting place of three children born to Nathaniel and Mary Smith. The first panel, an infant daughter, was unnamed and lived only 6 hours, living and dying on April 15th 1769. It was the second two that caught my eye and lead me to thinking. The middle panel read “Ephraim Jewett Smith died Nov 7th 1778 aged 18 months”. The last panel read “Ephraim Jewett Smith died Oct 30th 1783 aged 21 months”.  Ok…wait…back up….how could the same child die in two different years at two different ages?  Was it human cloning? That’s when I noticed the marks above each name; the Ephraim that died in 1778 was listed as “1st” and the Ephraim that died in 1783 was listed as “2nd”. This couple had two separate boys, both named “Ephraim Jewett Smith” die before the age of two.

Thinking this was just a fluke I continued to wander the cemetery, still contemplating my earlier find. Once again I found a headstone bearing the names of three children. The part of the stone bearing the parent’s names was missing but I was stunned to find the following inscribed on three horizontal panels:

  • The first Jedidiah died Dec 6, 1766 AE 2 months
  • The second Jedidiah died Feb 15th 1771 AE 14 months
  • The third Jedidiah died Sept 11, 1773 AE 12 months

This couple had named all three of their children Jedidiah and all three had died by the age of 14 months. I was flabbergasted, I had found not one but two headstones where multiple children bore the same name, living only a short while.

I did a little searching on the internet after coming home and found that in the early days names were often recycled. If an infant died they left a ‘vacancy’ and the name would be used again. While I understand using a name again, maybe in a later generation or in another branch of the family, I continue to be amazed that they would “recycle” it infant after infant within the same nuclear family. As I continued to look, trying to make sense of it, I found a better explanation on www.geneology.com:

Up until this century, parents could usually count on one third of their children not surviving. If a child died, the name was often used again. If a baby died, the next child of the same sex would often be given the same name… If an older child died, a younger one would often be named for him or her. If you see George in the 1850 census as a six year old and then in the 1860 census as an eight year old, it may mean the first one died shortly after the 1850 census was taken.


While I admit, this still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, it must have to the individuals who engaged in this practice. Next time you are walking in a cemetery, look at the stones…you might find something you can muse over.


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