Category: Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide

Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to the Old Burying Ground of Groton, MA

December 30, 2020

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 BURYING GROUND | GROTON, MA (1678)

Just off the main road going through Groton’s historic town center is the Old Burying Ground, where its citizens were buried since 1678, a period from which wooden markers sadly do not survive. In 1694, twenty colonists that perished during an Abeknaki raid on Groton were also interred somewhere in the four acres of hilly, bumpy land that now hosts about three thousand mortal remains.

The earliest death date is 1704, belonging to blacksmith James Prescott (b. 1684) on a stone so repaired and small that it’s quite easy to miss. Please note that a permit is required for grave rubbings, and the uneven ground is perilous to those prone to twisted ankles.

Mary Prescott

The graveyard is, in truth, a veritable candy shop for strange kids who love gravestones. Every socioeconomic class is present in abundance, with so many different types of decoration clustered together, it can at first be difficult to know where to look. Many early examples of the Worcester family style survive, including large format stones nearly two feet tall. Indeed, many examples of tall stones endure, including a four foot tall double headstone of John and Hannah Holdin, both of whom died in 1753. This example is festooned with winged hourglasses, skulls and crossbones, and many figural hearts.

More delicate designs survive alongside their hard, menacing forebears. The stone of Joshua Richardson (1772 – 1773) shows the skillful rendering of a charming bird and willow tree, and the swag of John Sheple (1757 – 1809) bears the interestingly abbreviated inscription, “MemeoMori.”

Masonic iconography appears, as do wistful cherubim with painstakingly fine feathers that are often flanked by deep-socketed skulls and crossbones.

The gigantic stone of Colonel John Bulkley (1703 – 1772) accommodates his long epitaph, which is in good company amongst other Harvard alumni and prominent citizens. His remains rest  atop one of the graveyard’s highest points, as though placing himself above the bones of others would make him any less dead.

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

Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to Life Forest Conservation Cemetery

December 17, 2020

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.

LIFE FOREST | HILLSBOROUGH, NH (2020)

Reader, today we have something a little different for you. Over the course of this blog series we’ve explored historic Puritan and Colonial burial grounds with stark slate tombstones as well as the sentimental garden cemeteries of the Victorian era with elegant marble monuments. Our introduction page for the blog gives a little primer on the history of New England burial grounds and their unique evolution from colonial to victorian to the 20th century. Just as Mount Auburn rose to the occasion of solving both the philosophical and logistical issues of burying the dead in the early 1800s, some new cemeteries created in the past 20 years are solving our newer problems; mainly climate change and the lack of autonomy many feel when a loved one dies. With the rise of natural burial and cremation, we are witnessing another evolution in how our mortal remains are laid to rest: conservation cemeteries, high tech urban towers of columbaria, and even entirely new processes like aquamation and recomposition. It truly is quite a time to be alive (or dead).

Today we’re exploring a cemetery that’s about as new as you can get. Life Forest Cemetery in Hillsborough, New Hampshire started burying in April of 2020 and is a new type of cemetery– a conservation cemetery that inters cremated remains beneath a tree of your choice. In short, conservation cemeteries solve a relatively new problem with new ideas: how can we protect conservation land from development? How can we fund this protection? Well, you can bury people there! The deeds of the burials are a private agreement to restrict the use/development of the land, and the money made from selling burial space goes directly to the upkeep of the land, just like a regular cemetery. But generally, these conservation cemeteries also aim to remedy a spiritual disconnection as well; how we remember our loved ones should be more than just a thought in passing in the days or years after their death. Sadly, for many, our relationship to them stops growing after their funeral. It’s clear to me upon arriving at Life Forest that this dedication to growth is the priority: whether it’s the baby tree “monuments” just out of the nursery or the evidence of visitors walking the trails leaving little stone towers–mementos to their loved ones.

Mel Bennett, one of the co-founders of Life Forest, and my tour guide for the day tells me the story of a young woman who purchased a plot at the cemetery, despite hopefully not needing to use it for many years. She brings her young daughter there to picnic, go on hikes, play in the stream–building a connection to this land where one day she will be buried. She hopes that when the day comes that she dies, her daughter will be comforted by the fond memories of her at Life Forest and that she will visit her often–filled with a heart-warming nostalgia instead of a weighty grief. Throughout the 20th century cemeteries have become delegated spaces for sadness that exist in a vacuum. They are where one visits on the worst days of one’s life and rarely at any other time. In general, cemetery visitation is at an all time low. The associations of tragedy, guilt, and grief are difficult to overcome and are the reasons why many feel so uncomfortable visiting cemeteries – Mel herself being one of those people. Could we socialize a more positive relationship with death? Can we foster cemeteries as places for living as much as for the dead? Many cultures have proven this to be possible, and at Life Forest in New Hampshire it begins with a tree. 

Mel Bennett Co-Founder of Life Forest

THE PROCESS

I know I should be practicing what I preach, but the reality is it is extremely difficult to cultivate a positive relationship with death. Even being in the business myself didn’t save me from the emotional rollercoaster that is grief. A few years ago I lost my aunt, Juliette to cancer. Our relationship had been rocky the past few years and I hadn’t spoken to her much due to a political disagreement, which appears unbelievably petty to me now–of course any dispute that ends in an unfriending on Facebook is bound to be. But for all my life we had been extremely close. She was a painter and a piano player, and was the biggest supporter of my music. She was the one who taught me how to read chords and play from my first Beatles sheet music, she was the person I would watch the Wizard of Oz twice in a row with, the person who would take me to vintage stores to model those elegant 1940s hats.  

My Aunt “Julie”

I was with her in the hospital as she was dying, which (despite the cancer) was a rather sudden and steep decline that took us by surprise. For me, first came the anger, mostly at myself. And then the deep existential sadness that comes with the loss of an artist compounded by the loss of their art. It was too much, so I did what most people do and built a wall. I’m ashamed to admit it, but writing this is the most thinking I’ve done on the topic since she died. No matter which way you cut it, being aware of unhealthy relationships with death doesn’t save you from one. That requires work. My story is not unlike the ones our clients visit us with at Mount Auburn, and it’s not unlike the ones that Mel encounters at Life Forest either.

Mel had sent me an email suggesting that we take a first person approach for the tour of Life Forest. In other words, I select a loved one that I’ve lost that I would like “buried” at Life Forest and Mel will take me through the motions that all of her families go through. Although it took a little courage, I selected my aunt Juliette who had told me she wanted a conservation burial but never received one. I sent Mel some information, and was off to New Hampshire the next day to begin the process.

THE TREE

Clients at Life Forest Cemetery start their journey by choosing a tree just like a family would choose a stone monument. Life Forest has the pleasure of partnering with Darrin and Kim Black of StoneFalls Gardens in Henniker, New Hampshire as the supplier of trees. It’s late November so the leaves and flowers are all gone, but I relish the New England woods in the fall and the beautiful architecture of all the tree branches. StoneFalls Gardens is preparing for winter, and it’s clear they take their operation as stewards of the environment very seriously. I stand with Darrin and Mel in front of three piles of dirt probably as large as my house, this is StoneFalls Gardens’ compost area. Darrin collects the compost from the community, as well as from the brush on his own grounds and uses a rotating system to age the compost and then filter it. He’s created a self-sustaining process as he’s able to grow all of his plants using his own compost that he creates every year.     

Compost Piles

I meandered around the nursery with the trio of my guides waiting at the top of the hill, patiently giving me space while I made my choice. Gentle, kind, and knowledgeable are the words that come to mind to describe the StoneFalls Gardens crew. They truly possess the demeanor required to comfort grief-stricken families, as they open up their nursery to receive individuals as they navigate this deeply emotional choice. I “selected” a dogwood tree for my aunt, I know she would appreciate the early spring flowers and could easily imagine them appearing in one of her paintings.

THE LAND

Life Forest is located on land that had been cleared by a logging company in the past and has a number of little alcoves where clients can select their locations. Life Forest land hosts a conservation easement from the Hillsborough Conservation Commission, who’s walking trails are located all around the burial area. Having just started out, Mel makes it clear to me that the landscape is still very much a work in progress. She and her co-founder John are often clearing brush, forging paths, and removing tree stumps– remnants from the loggers. 

Stone circles surround mulched saplings that dot the cleared area of Life Forest. Tiny metal markers created by a local artist denote family names and dates for each plot. Life Forest has even invented a way to inter cremated remains without jeopardizing the tree’s roots for future burials. When a plot is purchased the owners are given GPS Coordinates to the site of the grave, as well as a QR Code to an online memorial page for a lost loved one. There families can upload pictures, videos, and type stories to populate the page. This is what the cemeteries of the future will look like.

MEMENTOS

Upon hopping out of the car on Life Forest’s grounds Mel hands me a bag. Inside is a painted rock of a sunset (or sunrise) with a music staff. Mel’s daughter had painted the rock for me to honor my aunt. A small, but immensely meaningful tribute from someone who has never met me but recognizes the importance of losing someone. I place the stone on a nearby boulder that Mel says will eventually become a memory wall for visitors.

Also in the bag a locket with the Life Forest tree on it. Inside is a small scroll with sheet music of Blackbird by the Beatles.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Despite being brand new and navigating the uncertain waters of the pandemic, Life Forest has already demonstrated they excel at the most important part of being a cemetery-keeper: holding the space and holding the bereaved.

A big thank you to Darrin and Kim Black of StoneFalls Gardens and Mel Bennett, her wonderful family, and the rest of the Life Forest team for making me feel so welcome miles away from home.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Corinne Elicone is the Events & Outreach Coordinator at Mount Auburn Cemetery. She curates Mount Auburn’s “death positive” programming, online video content, and historic walking tours of the grounds. She is also Mount Auburn’s first female crematory operator in their near 190 year history.

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

Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to Walton Cemetery in Pepperell, Massachusetts

December 7, 2020

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.

WALTON CEMETERY | PEPPERELL, MA (1746)

Next to the expanded Pepperell Cemetery is the first burial ground of Pepperell, Massachusetts, known as Walton Cemetery. North of the original Parish Meetinghouse, facing private homes from the period and the local Odd Fellows’ Lodge, it was established in 1746 with the earliest death date in 1750. Just off the main road, on a quiet day it’s possible to imagine how the town used to look, freed of telephone wires and traffic lights.

Familiar surnames such as Shattuck and the ubiquitous Blood family can be found amongst the graves, with lunette styles varying often in the same decade. The earliest graves show fearsome skulls with eye sockets bored deep, and soon ornate winged skulls give way to infant-like craniums flanked with crossbones and odd, swaddled faces. Many are ornate, bearing references to citizens who had relocated from Boston and its environs.

Andrew Kull noted the “vogue for the graphic description of accidental death” in his Collector’s Guide (1975), including Deacon David Blood, “who was struck dead in the 70th year of his age, by an overturn of his cart” in 1787. Kull did not mention or did not notice, which is easy enough to do amongst moss and deterioration, the stone of Blood’s son Jonathan. In 1763, he “received a Wound by a Cart Wheels going over him at Concord… of which he died in a few hours in the 21st year of his age.” Not an odd coincidence or uncommon occurrence for the time, but still sad.

“Here lies the Body of Jonathan Blood the Son of Deacon David and Mrs. Abigail Blood who received a Wound by a Cart Wheels going over him at Concord July 10th 1763 of which he died in a few Hours in the 21st Year of his age.”

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

Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to Rumney Marsh Burial Ground Revere, MA

November 23, 2020

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.

RUMNEY MARSH BURIAL GROUND | REVERE, MA (1693)

Revere Massachusetts, often overlooked by the metropolis of Boston, has a removed nostalgic flavor for me – An area important to my upbringing, that I seldom visited. My grandmother grew up working class in Everett (the town that borders Revere) in the 50’s with her Swedish mother– both of them tough as nails through and through. When my grandmother married and had kids of her own, and then her kids had kids, well, that’s where I come into the picture. Far removed from her stories of the suburbs (if you can call it that) of East Boston, but captivated by her descriptions of 50’s highschool fashion, the corner stores, the rivalry between Somerville, and (most disappointingly) the sewing kit neatly hidden in a tin of Danish cookies –regrettably a phenomenon that appears to be universal across generations. One of the only times in my memory that I can recall actually laying my eyes on these locations of legend, I was driving through Everett and Revere with her soon after my grandfather died. I was 19. She pointed out everything as we drove by, “there’s the dry-cleaning place my mother used to send me”, “I met your grandfather on that beach” pointing to Revere Beach dotted with sandcastles. We were on our way to Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett to purchase a plot for my grandfather who passed away suddenly just days before. I could tell it was emotional for her driving through these old neighborhoods–so much of it exactly how she left it, but a lifetime and a life-ended in between. 

I mention this story because upon arriving at the Rumney Marsh Burial Ground it is immediately clear to me that this cemetery has been and continues to be the object of genuine care and affection from the Revere community. Between the friendly abutters waving at me as I trudge through the burial ground with my camera and the newly installed memorial bench, plaque, and entry sign, – a glimpse of the community that I had been so far removed from comes into clearer focus.

I introduce myself to Brendan O’Brien, in that kind of awkward way that the pandemic has everyone enduring: standing 10 feet away, muffled by a KN95 mask, and noticeably lacking in a handshake and a visible smile. O’Brien got in touch with me via email after being a reader of this blog series, generously hoping to share this little colonial burial ground with me. As I understand it, O’Brien is part of a larger group of stewards of this place called The Rumney Marsh Burial Ground Renovation Committee. With a background in preservation and a flair for history O’Brien begins his tour, something it’s very clear he missed hosting during the pandemic.

Rumney Marsh’s first recorded burial was in 1693. William Hasey, not the recipient of the first burial, but owner of the oldest remaining gravestone, also owned the land at the time of Rumney Marsh’s founding as a burial ground. The Hasey family became concerned for their legacy when a smallpox outbreak in the 1690’s prohibited the return of infected corpses to Boston for burial. Anyone discovered in a plot to sneak a body into Boston would be fined 5 pounds. In response to this new policy, the Hasey’s set aside some of their land for a new burial ground that became Rumney Marsh officially in the 1740s. Boasting notable figures from Revere, East Boston, Chelsea, and Winthrop (amongst others) Rumney Marsh is the connection point of the community’s earliest settlers, up until its last burial in 1929. 

Lewis Bullard was the last burial in Rumney Marsh (1929)

Why did the burial ground close in the 20s? Was it full?” I asked O’Brien, who was quick to point out that burial tastes had changed-even long before the 20th century. With the creation of Woodlawn in Everett and even Mount Auburn in Cambridge these colonial burial grounds had gone out of style. “Even in the late 1800’s burials here were rare.” He said. O’Brien tells me that he came across a hidden gem when researching the burials here. The Rosetta Stone of Rumney Marsh (if you will) is an 1897 map of the grounds (currently rolled up in a closet of a Boston archive) with inexplicable specificity on who is buried where in the cemetery–marked or unmarked. O’Brien and the committee have sought to digitize this map for quite some time, but have had trouble getting their hands on it. “Based on the 1897 map” he says, “it doesn’t appear as though Rumney Marsh is completely full”. Also a rarity when it comes to burial grounds this old, Rumney Marsh doesn’t appear to have been rearranged over the years. 

Along the north wall by the entrance to the burial ground are two recently installed plaques to commemorate the enslaved and free men, women, and children who are buried in unmarked graves beneath. “Never forget that they were human beings who contributed to our community’s history”, the plaque reads.

According to research done by the committee, a 1938 book called “The History of Revere” by Benjamin Shurtleff indicated that three Black individuals, two free: Job and Betty Worrow and one enslaved: Fanny Fairweather are actually buried in the south-east corner of the burial ground, and not with the others by the entrance to the cemetery.

The Resting Place of Job and Betty Worrow and Fanny Fairweather (unmarked)

Shurtleff’s book alludes to the fact that Fairweather’s monument is long gone at the time of the writing his book. Shurtleff goes even further to say that the inscription on Fairweather’s monument read “ Fanny Fairweather, died 1845, age 80, a native of Africa.” How Shurtleff would have any idea what is inscribed on a disappeared stone is still in question. 

Of all the Black individuals buried at Rumney Marsh, the most information exists on Job Worrow, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Worrow served under Captain Samuel Sprague (also buried at Rumney Marsh) at Pullen Point in Winthrop. Early in his life Worrow lived on Deer Island, later he would move to Shirley with his wife, Anna Sennie who was half Black and half Indigenous. It is recorded that he died in a poorhouse in Chelsea at 100 years old. 

ICONOGRAPHY

At Rumney Marsh there are many great examples of work by the early New England stone carvers such as Robert Fowle and Richard Adams, but what stood out to me most of all was the charming little imps accompanying many a winged skull on numerous stones. Too small to catch from afar, I hadn’t even noticed them until O’Brien pointed them out to me: rotund and surreptitiously holding banners sculpted in stone.

Little precious details appear to be the reward of curious cemetery sleuths meandering the grounds at Rumney Marsh: tiny skulls, little imps, mysterious circles, a broken stem of a flower, it left me wondering what else I hadn’t captured on my short 40 minute stint there.

The most in-your-face monument I encountered was a rather striking stone with an individual portrayed as a portrait bust sculpture, smiling innocently. Unbeknownst to the smiling subject of art-within-art… there is a skeleton aiming directly at their head with a massive arrow. I mean, the questions I have are endless. Are we team skeleton? Why is it flashing me that Mona Lisa smile? Is this really a meta-commentary on the clash between colonial and neoclassical art? Probably.

PRESERVATION

Just like most New England colonial burial grounds, Rumney Marsh struggles against the tides of time and the disintegration of its precious gravestones. Trees and their roots make worthy adversaries as preservationists wrestle the stones out of tree trunks in an attempt to save them from a certain, woody demise.  

Additionally, cordoned off by the entrance to the burial ground are fragments of stones found by O’Brien and other volunteers awaiting preservation. O’Brien told me that he found three fragments of the same stone scattered across the entire cemetery–how one broken stone was able to cover that amount of ground is a mystery to us both.

A big thank you to Brendan O’Brien and the whole Rumney Marsh Burial Ground Renovation Committee for inviting me to cherish this plot of land. I hope to stop by often when visiting my grandfather at Woodlawn Cemetery. 

Make sure to check out the RMBGRC’s website for more information on notable burials and other topics here: http://rmbgrc.org/ and follow their amazing work on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rumney_marsh_burial_ground/

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Corinne Elicone is the Events & Outreach Coordinator at Mount Auburn Cemetery. She curates Mount Auburn’s “death positive” programming, online video content, and historic walking tours of the grounds. She is also Mount Auburn’s first female crematory operator in their near 190 year history.

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