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

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

Beyond the Gates: A Cemetery Explorer’s Guide to Spring Brook Cemetery in Mansfield, Massachusetts

January 29, 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.

SPRING BROOK CEMETERY, MA (1860)

Reader, today we have a tale of two different kinds of cemeteries, both alike in dignity under one name in fair Mansfield, Massachusetts where we lay our scene. Spring Brook Cemetery, consecrated in 1860, has a clear boundary between the old and the new. A simple flat plot of land next to what we can only assume used to be a babbling brook now down to a steady trickle, rests with a few structures of interest and a smattering of Victorian-style beech trees. In the old quarter (19th century) marble, granite, and even a handful of zinc monuments memorialize Mansfields’ dead: many masons from the very active Mansfield Masonic Lodge, lots of Odd Fellows, as well as appearances from the Grand Army of the Republic. Camaraderie and fraternal bonds seem to be some of the most pervasive values of the old industrial town.

On the opposite side of the cemetery, modern monuments stand with sleek and shiny granite polished and etched into familiar terms of endearment, and many a “fishing with dad” reference. The difference between the two sides of the cemetery is stark. At the turn of the 19th century burial tastes rapidly developed and so did the design and aesthetic of modern day death paraphernalia. Journey through a late 20th – early 21st century cemetery and you’ll find mementos of plastic or stone left by the active family members missing their loved one, and bringing them tokens and treats, much as they did when they were alive. I even saw a toy horse at the grave of a horse aficionado. In the cemetery community there is often a harsh judgement placed on these mementos and those who leave them. While I maintain concern for the environment, the preservation of the stones, as well as the groundskeeper’s equipment, I can’t help but be poignantly charmed by the thoughtfulness and personality these mementos give to the modern inexpressive granite blocks. They are evidence of a visitor to often lonely places.

For David Grant, the President of Spring Brook cemetery, the continuing story of the cemetery is also a personal one, a thought that becomes apparent to me as we happen upon a tombstone bearing the name “Grant”.

“My wife left out his favorite cupcakes the other day” he says as we stop to look. His son is buried in this spot and it was his 54th birthday recently. And a range of his other family members going back generations are scattered throughout the cemetery. Stewardship in cemeteries (especially very old ones) often comes in the form of an adopted fondness–a rogue genealogist seeing a need and filling a need, a parks department official slowly fixing a decrepit perimeter, a member of a local historical society meandering through a maze of archives… 

Poignantly observing the President of this cemetery stop at his son’s grave, I realize he is both client and salesperson, visitor and security, genealogist and the genes themselves. A unique combination that lends itself to a great deal of passion and a curbing sense of realism. Realism, which far too often challenges Spring Brook Cemetery.

PRESERVATION & HISTORY

Despite the pandemic (which is overwhelming many cemeteries), sales at Spring Brook have been low leaving David Grant and his fellow board member Kevin McNatt (who is also President of the Mansfield Historical Society) in a number of financial binds. As we walk there are a number of old stones in need of preservation. In the past, Spring Brook received a grant and retained the services of the conservators of Beyond the Gravestone (great name). But it appears time and its habit of decay is outpacing the number of grants available to Spring Brook. A few weeks ago, a truck carrying a backhoe came through the gates and knocked the massive granite Spring Brook entrance sign to the ground! Another challenging item to add to Grant and McNatt’s ever-growing ledger. Sadly, this is the case for many old cemeteries as they develop into a future that seems increasingly set on forgetting them. Despite the ever-growing to-do list, Grant and McNatt seem determined that the projects will be completed, and from what I’ve learned about what they’ve accomplished already, I believe it too!

In 2007 Spring Brook Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Despite being consecrated in 1860 as a non-profit, non-denominational cemetery, the earliest date on a monument is 1790 and the land had been used as a burial space up until it’s consecration 70 years later.  The earliest newspaper in Mansfield was the Mansfield News in 1873, so there are no articles that can be researched to determine more accurate info of the deaths and burials in the town. Spring Brook is presently scouring old documents from Cemetery Records to see if they can find more. Archeologists have yet to determine if these earlier burials were original to the land, or if they were reburied from other burial grounds at a later date. According to the archeological survey conducted, there may exist a number of unmarked burials in Spring Brook, most likely of the community’s poor or unclaimed dead. While no known historic Indigenous sites have been found within the boundaries of Spring Brook it is possible they exist undiscovered– considering the activity of the Wampanoag people less than a mile away.

STRUCTURES

The Card Memorial Chapel is the largest structure on the grounds and was constructed in 1898 after the death of Mary Lewis (Lulu) Card– daughter of the prominent Mansfield Industrialist, Simon Card. A newspaper headline from June 3rd 1898 reads, “The Card Memorial Chapel: A Beautiful and Substantive Tribute to the Memory of a Beloved Only Daughter”. Spring Brook had recently received funding from the Mansfield Non-Profit Committee to refurbish the chapel. Inside the chapel is a warm and quaint location for a small family service, or even (as Grant told me took place a few years ago) a wedding!

In the corner of the cemetery right beside the babbling brook of the namesake is the receiving tomb for Spring Brook built in 1889. Before the invention of jackhammers, backhoes, and electric heaters when the ground was too frozen to dig, that was that. Pack it up and wait for spring. But where would the bodies be stored in the winter? Aha! The receiving tomb. I did a video for Mount Auburn on receiving tombs. Check it out if you’d like to hear more.

There is a beautiful original and ornate cast-iron fence roadside by the receiving tomb. Recently, Spring Brook received a donation to begin repairs on their perimeter fence, and I do hope that they are able to repair this portion someday soon!

Oftentimes when we learn about death we are either learning about the past or the future. The old way of doing things vs the new way of doing things. For historic cemeteries still operating today there exists a fluidity on this spectrum full of growing-pains as we adapt and create. And we couldn’t do it without our visitors and clients who guide us in different directions and illuminate so much about the end-of-life choices we want to provide. Support your local cemeteries, they are places of rich history, cultural tapestries, and philosophical guidance.

A big thank you to David Grant and Kevin McNatt and the rest of the board of Spring Brook Cemetery for inviting me. Please learn more about the cemetery on their website here: https://www.springbrookcemetery.com/

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 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