Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to the Old Town Cemetery in Mansfield, MA

February 8, 2021

Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide is a blog hosted by The Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery written and researched by Corinne Elicone and Zoë G. Burnett. Our intention for this blog is to rediscover the out of the way and obscure graveyards that surround us, as well as to uncover new histories among the more well-trod grounds of prominent burial places. With this blog as a guide, visitors can experience cemeteries in a new way. As important landmarks of cultural heritage, our hope is that interest in these quiet places will help to preserve and educate us about our past and, ultimately, everyone’s shared future.

OLD TOWN CEMETERY | MANSFIELD, MA (~1658)

Following last week’s post, Corinne and I also toured another of Mansfield’s thirteen cemeteries during our visit. Possibly the burial ground of Mansfield’s first parish, settled in 1658, many graves in the Old Town Cemetery predate the town’s 1775 incorporation. The town Common is watched over by the Congregational Church’s historic copper steeple, built on foundations laid in 1764. This site is the last in a series of meetinghouses that served as the hubs of all early American towns, and Mansfield is a great example of how these communities expanded through the centuries while preserving its historical core.

The stones of the Old Town Cemetery reveal an expansive variety of designs and materials. An impressive amount of portrait stones neighbor finely inscribed early geometric willows, figural setting suns, and nineteenth-century urns that almost resemble Islamic lamps. Unusually ornate floreate, symmetric patterns occupy a good percentage of lunettes. Particularly of note are the hybrid cherub-skulls that seem to be from the same workshop as the suns. One rather crude but endearing example of this motif can be found amidst a grove of trees , possibly an apprentice’s attempt at his master’s original design.

Some of the slate stones appear to have been partially conserved, resulting in an unusual green tint on the front surface. This usually only occurs when lichen spreads over slate, but even then it more commonly forms distinct clumps rather than a film. The tint could also be a result of chemical erosion, and appears to have been on the stones for some time. Similarly mysterious are a few markers of a distinctly darker slate than their peers. While most surviving gravestones are made from green slate, these resemble contemporary Grayson slate, quarried today in Virginia. Boston’s slate quarries were once a bountiful resource, but without chemical analysis it’s tricky to determine the dark slate’s origin.

No seventeenth-century headstones have survived, and the oldest belongs to Sarah Pratt (d. 1724), the sole decoration of which is the inscription of her name, her husband Josiah’s name, and her death date. Their son, Josiah’s second wife, and the children of that union are laid to rest nearby. Josiah is credited with co-owning Mansfield’s first grist mill, which was operational from 1719 to 1824, mainly so he and his partner could warrant owning the twelve acres granted to grist mill owners at that time. All around are buildings and plaques commemorating the town’s self-efficiency, including an industrial boom in the twentieth century that has since declined. Empty as the Common is during pandemic times, one hopes that when the weather warms, the few fallen and broken stones will receive some attention.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Z.G. Burnett is a writer and editor with a background in early American history and material culture. She has been published by The Attic on Eighth, Ivy-Style, and The Vintage Woman Magazine. Combining her passion for the paranormal and everything pink, Z.G. is currently working on her first personal style guide.

If you are a representative of a cemetery or a cemetery historian and would like to see your cemetery featured in this blog please email Corinne Elicone at celicone@mountauburn.org

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