Journal Opinion October 30, 2013 “Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade, Where heaves the turf in many a moldering heap. Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.” Thomas Gray, 1751 Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Death was a constant companion among the first settlers of our region. Soon after settlement they created a community cemetery in which to bury family members. With Halloween this week, stories of vampires, zombies witches and ghosts are rampant and superstitions about graveyards plague many. It would be easy to link all of these in this month’s column. But I resist the temptation. Rather, this column examines the development of cemeteries in local communities and the monuments that mark the graves.
The information comes from local town histories, Burial Grounds of Vermont edited by Bradford’s Arthur and Frances Hyde and a recent presentation in Warren by cemetery historian Glenn Knoblock. I also used Stone & Bones: Using Tombstones as Textbooks, an 86-page curriculum that I help three other Vermont teachers create and distribute to classrooms around the state and beyond.
Soon after settlement, towns had to deal with the burial of the dead. The oldest marked burial in Bradford’s Upper Plain Cemetery was of young Andrew McFarland who drowned in the Waits River in 1770. A portion of the East Common granted to Orford in 1773 by Israel Morey was for a burying ground. The Old Burying Ground, now the Ladd Street Cemetery in Haverhill was set aside in 1774. Zelpha Abbot was Groton’s first death and in 1784 she was buried at her home place, the beginnings of the Groton-Peacham burial grounds. Every community in our area has at least five known cemeteries. Thetford and Topsham have 13 each, Newbury 12, Groton 10, Piermont 8 and Bradford has five. Each neighborhood selected a location nearby, often in an elevated and well-drained location. William Little in his 1870 history of Warren, reflected on the desirability of local burial: “In the country, every man, woman and child, goes down to the dust amid those who have known them from their youth, and all miss them from their place.”
Some graveyards, like the Union Village Cemetery, Corinth’s Meadow Meeting House Cemetery and the East Orange Cemetery are located adjacent to a churchyard. Orford’s Dame Hill cemetery was so located, except that the church was relocated downhill in Orfordville. Lyme’s oldest cemetery has always been near the town’s meetinghouse, even as the original building was rebuilt at an adjacent location on the Common. Topsham’s Currier Hill cemetery, the town’s oldest, was located in the area of the town that was first settled. Ryegate’s Old Scotch Cemetery was located east of the original Commons. As these neighborhoods did not grow as expected, the number of graves located there are few or have been moved to more established cemeteries.
The opposite was true in Wells River where, as the village grew, the Grove Street Cemetery, first used in 1801, was replaced in 1867 by a new cemetery on nearby Bible Hill. In 1890 the bodily remains in the old village cemetery were moved to that new location. As the years passed and the number of graves increased, many primary cemeteries were enlarged. As town population levels changed it was not uncommon for there to be more dead than alive in a community. It was said of some towns that “the only thing growing was the cemetery.” As early as 1875, Bradford historian Silas McKeen noted that there were 1666 graves in the Upper Plain Cemetery, one of four in the town with a population of 1500. In neighborhoods that became deserted during the period after the Civil War, abandoned burial grounds may be the only sign that the area was once an active settlement.
Most of the earliest cemeteries were town owned. Some cemeteries are maintained by private associations. In Newbury, the cemeteries at Jefferson Hill, Boltonville, Wells River and the Oxbow are cared for by local associations. Bradford'sSawyer Cemetery is operated by the Bradford Cemetery Association and the town. There was also a 19th century tradition of farm or family burial spots, many now abandoned. Through the mid-19th century, these small cemeteries kept deceased family members close to the home place. Examples include the Whiting family plot in Fairlee with its three fieldstone markers, Thetford’s Mills Family Cemetery with five graves surrounded by a wall of granite blocks and the Manchester family’s three graves enclosed by a stone wall in Ryegate. In recent years there have been several Vermont court cases arising from these small burial plots as land ownership changes.
Many of the earliest gravestones in the area were carved by local artisans. Two of the earliest sources have been identified by the symbols the carvers consistently used. In 1771, established Connecticut carver Gershom Bartlett moved to Norwich and over the next 28 years produced hundreds of gravestones still found in area cemeteries. From 1786 to 1835, three generations of the Risley family of Hanover produced local stones, some of which still mark local graves. The materials used by these early craftsmen include field stone, slate and soapstone. Orford had two quarries of soapstone, the largest of which was at Cottonstone Mountain, also known locally as Gravestone Mountain.
In the 19th century, power tools replaced hammer and chisels with stones being manufactured in larger stone sheds often manned by immigrant workers. Ryegate, and to a lesser extent Groton, quarried and manufactured granite monuments during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Vermont is one of the largest domestic sources of slate, granite and marble, the three most common stones used for grave markers. The first marble quarry in the United States opened in Dorset, VT in 1785, the beginning of a major Vermont industry. Barre’s granite industry began in the 1820s and grew into one of the nation’s largest providers of monuments. From 1874 to 1914 a company in Connecticut manufactured zinc metal monuments that could be ordered through catalogues. One such monument can be found in the Upper Plain Cemetery in Bradford.
While the earliest grave markers were on boulders of common fieldstone, these quickly gave way to the doorway-shaped headstone, thinly cut and simple in design, suggesting the passage from this life to the next. In the 19th century pedestals, obelisks and even pyramid-shaped monuments began to appear. In cemeteries throughout the area the graves of prominent individuals and families are marked with obelisks, their size overshadowing adjacent stones. The gravesite of Nathaniel Niles in the West Fairlee Center cemetery has a pyramid adjacent to his 1828 marker. After 1900 markers were sometimes fashioned in designs ranging from angels to trees. The Hope Cemetery in Barre and the Pinehurst Cemetery in South Ryegate have very ornate memorials, often fashioned by the families of the stone crafters who worked in the local industry. Some gravesites have footstones as well as headstones and a family marker. In addition to the more common family plot cornerstones, some earlier plots were set off with stone curbing or metal fences. What was carved on grave stones changed over time.
In early New England symbols reflected almost exclusively religious attitudes toward life and death. The death’s head symbol was common. A familiar epitaph was “Death is a debt to Nature due. Which I have paid and so must you.” With the Great Awakening in the mid-18th century attitudes changed from mortality to immortality and salvation. This was reflected in the use of birds, angels and soul images as symbols of the belief in the resurrection. By the early 19th century imagery became more ornate reflecting the attitudes of the Enlightenment. Weeping willows and urns were more commonly used and epitaphs reflected beliefs in eternal peace and reunions in heaven, written to soothe the bereaved. Some appeared to defy death altogether. Inscriptions reflected the individual’s biographical information, personal characteristics, accomplishments, relationship to others buried nearby and circumstances of their death. In the late 19th century the use of epitaphs declined but carved images continued. Modern techniques now allow a headstone to be inscribed with complex etchings and even color.
In the earliest graveyards, gravesites were often in haphazard rows. After 1800 cemeteries became more organized with orderly grave location, roads, plantings and the addition of vaults for the placement of bodies awaiting spring burial. The Sawyer Chapel in the Upper Plain Cemetery was built in 1912 as both a vault and a building in which funeral services could be held. In some cases cemeteries took on the look of parks.
Even before it was required by state law, most cemeteries were surrounded by fences, some with stonewalls and others with a board fence, often with granite posts. The small Munn-Rowell cemetery in South Corinth has a unique slatted steel fence with granite posts. The fence around Orford’s West Burying Ground was first constructed in 1811 and after some years fell into disrepair. Despite the comment of one earlier caretaker that there was no reason to repair it, as “the people in there can’t get out,” that fence is now fine. Some graves are unmarked. This may be because they were never marked or because the markers have disappeared. Weathering and acid rain have made many markings illegible.
Some gravesites are cenotaphs or “empty tombs.” During the Civil War, with embalming in its infancy, many of the battle dead were not returned home but markers were sometimes erected in memory of the departed. The grave of Mary Sumner Hoyt in the Upper Plain Cemetery is marked, but with a question. The only information on the stone other than her name is “She lived, what more can be said? She died and that’s all we know, she’s dead.” Those who died on town poor farms were buried at town expense often with the smallest of markers. One exception to this can be found in a Corinth cemetery where, according to an 1880 newspaper report, “a handsome marble slab has been placed by the Selectmen at the head of an aged woman who died this spring in the town poor house.” This apparently was in recognition of her “industrious and prudent” nature.
Since 1868 many indigents who died at the Grafton County Home in North Haverhill have been buried in a paupers’ cemetery adjacent to the Horse Meadow Cemetery. Each grave is marked by a simple stone with the name, age, date of death and the Grafton County town from which the deceased came. At one point, even this information was omitted in favor of a simple number corresponding to records kept by the County Clerk.
The graves of veterans receive special attention. Their graves are marked annually with flags often placed in holders representing membership in veterans’ organizations. When leading groups on tours of the Upper Plain Cemetery I draw their attention to the marker for Bradford’s Charles Smith who died of his battle wounds in 1864. The stone that marks his cenotaph bears an epitaph that reflects his attitude toward life and the cause for which he died. “God is with the right and sooner or later the right must prevail. God help me to be ever in the right.”
In closing, I salute the work of groups such as the Vermont Old Cemetery Association, including members such as Frances and the late Arthur Hyde, that work to prevent old cemeteries from being “weed grown, forlorn, forgotten, headstones bent, some fallen away.” This includes local towns that regularly appropriate funds to maintain their cemeteries. This is especially important as many deceased no longer have descendants locally. It has been said that a town’s character can be judged by how well they maintain their cemeteries. I consider graveyard vandalism to be a serious crime against a community. The role of one of my students in the vandalism of a cemetery in the early 1990s led to the development of the Stone & Bones curriculum.
I appreciate those in local schools who take their classes to local cemeteries as part of a study of history, art or other subjects. As a genealogist and historian I am drawn to cemeteries. I have visited the gravesites of family members in England and New England as far back as nine generations. As I do not subscribe to the horror stories connected to cemeteries, I find them interesting and peaceful. I appreciate that the memory of those, known and unknown, are carved in stone. I can tell much about the history of a town or neighborhood by visiting the local cemetery. In May 1966, The United Opinion reporter Marilyn Spooner wrote of her visit to the older section of Haverhill’s Ladd Street Cemetery. Her comment reflects a lasting attitude toward cemeteries. She wrote “There is stillness in the air throughout the cemetery. Not the uneasy sort that frightens, but rather, one of tranquility. It speaks of death, yet softly.”