Since childhood I have loved flea markets and genealogy. As a genealogist, I have often discovered the lost treasures of other families and purchased them. When I was about twelve years old, I attended a barn sale near Campton, New Hampshire. As the adult collectors pored over the antique farm equipment, I looked through trunks with old photographs and papers. Sitting out on a table was a small metal plaque; at first glance, it appeared to be a silver serving dish. When I picked it up and saw a name and a death date, though, I got curious. I purchased this item for $3.00 and brought it home that summer.
I would later learn it was a coffin plate. It was common for the name of the deceased to be inscribed upon a silver plate and secured to his or her coffin. As a remembrance, the coffin plate was often retrieved by the family and saved. This coffin plate sat on my bookshelf at home; for a period it was misplaced. I still live in the same house in Stoughton, and on a shelf in the attic I eventually rediscovered this piece. In the early 1980s I had no quick way of plugging in a name and date to see who this individual was. With so many vital and census records online these days, I recently reinvestigated my purchase from more 30 years ago.
As a remembrance, the coffin plate was often retrieved by the family and saved.
This coffin plate was once attached to the coffin of Rosella (Whitcomb) Perkins. Rosella was born in either Eden or Hyde Park in Lamoille County, Vermont on 20 March 1820 [calculated from her age at death], a daughter of Asaph and Olive (Buzzell) Whitcomb. She was married in Lamoille County on 2 August 1842 by the Rev. Charles H. Lovejoy to John Burnham Perkins.
According to the 1850 census, Rosella and John were living in Elmore, Vermont, where he worked as a dyer. Their household consisted of three small children: Henry (age 6), Thankful (4), and Charles (2). In 1860, this small family had relocated to Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, and had four children: Asaph W. (named for Rosella’s father), Margaret (8), Jameson D. (5), and Ida R. (1). By 1870, Rosella and her husband were residing in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, without any of their children.
Rosella’s story ends back in Elmore, where she died of cancer of the stomach on 24 March 1878, aged 58 years and 4 days. Her widower John died in Elmore in 1883; at his death, he was a clothes cleaner and dyer. My original conclusion was that Rosella was buried in Elmore, where her death was recorded, but I then discovered she was buried in Winchendon, Massachusetts, according to that town’s death record.
Since Rosella is not my ancestor, I was faced with a decision on what to do with her coffin plate. I could easily research some of her descendants and offer this back to one of them. But the potential number of living descendants from a marriage in 1842 could be quite large. Who would I choose? Would the coffin plate get lost to time again? Therefore, I made another decision, as many NEHGS members have done since 1845: to add it to the Society’s collection.
Since Rosella is not my ancestor, I was faced with a decision on what to do with her coffin plate.
There are countless treasures at NEHGS dealing with the mourning of our ancestors. These items include an eighteenth-century post-mortem portrait of an eleven-year-old girl; memorial embroideries; funeral eulogies; and even some other coffin plates. Each document, and each artifact, tells a unique story. I hope that someday that one of Rosella’s descendants visits NEHGS and see this connection to his or her past – and I know already that my three dollar investment was worthwhile.