Strangely Specific

“In Memory of Jacob, third son of Capt. Jacob Rice, died May 7, 1818 AEt. 9 yrs. His death was occasioned by the fall of a dung fork, one tine penetrating his brain.”

Whenever we walk through the cemetery, I make my way to this particular headstone. The inscription intrigues me. I can understand the willow tree, but I wonder what prompted Jacob’s parents—assuming they chose the inscription—to be so specific about the cause of the boy’s death.

Did Captain and Mrs. Rice, in their grieving, turn the event over and over in their minds until it just seemed natural to put it on their son’s gravestone? If this were the case, I would expect there to be more examples of specific gravestones, especially for children.

Could they have placed it there as a kind of public service announcement, a caution to other parents? Perhaps not; I suspect that parents in nineteenth-century New England were well acquainted with the dangers of agrarian life.

Maybe the dung fork was improperly stored by a neighbor, employee, or relative, and this inscription is there as a public reminder of this person’s negligence and its tragic results. Anyone who walked by the churchyard stone in the years that followed would know the story and wouldn’t need to see the name of the person to know about whom this message referred. It would be a quiet but very public shaming.

This last possibility feels particularly New England to me, but I don’t know if it’s the true story. The vital records available online record only that Jacob Rice died “of a wound in the head” at age 8 years 8 months and 11 days. It’s possible I could learn more about this incident if I went through town or church records (which I suppose at that time were the same thing), but for now I’m content to speculate.

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