Graveyards: A new way to experience
old New England
by Jennifer Marcelais © GraveMatter

There is a place in every New England town where you can find art, culture,
history, poetry, theology, philosophy, anthropology and more, all in an
outdoor park setting for free.  This can all be found in each town’s burying

With today’s society’s attitudes towards death, the wealth of information
these early burying grounds provide usually goes unnoticed and neglected.  
It’s possible that when passing by one you never gave it a second thought as
being a place of interest.  But look closer and you’ll be surprised at what you’
ll find.

New England Graveyards: Outdoor Museums

New England’s cemeteries are some of the oldest in the entire United States,
dating back to the beginnings of our country.  People have been living and
dying here for almost 400 years starting in the early 1600’s. These people
have shaped the events and history that has molded this country into what it
is today.  Although many of their possessions are long gone and their homes
torn down, not to be found in or as museums, their last and most personal
possession and monument to their memory can still be seen after centuries
have passed.

If you like art, you can see up close and even touch some of the earliest
sculpture produced by European settlers and their descendants in America.  
Each of these pieces were hand-chiseled by local artisans.  These carvers
often had many other jobs in the community, such as furniture makers and
blacksmiths, where many of their designs and symbols crossed over into the
different objects they created.

Their styles vary just like the brush strokes of every painter.  Commonly
seen symbols are interpreted in a variety of ways from sculptor to sculptor
and can contrast greatly from the dark reminder of mortality of a skeletal
grim reaper bearing his scythe, to an angel’s cherubic face surrounded by
intertwining flowers.  

Some stones are adorned with symbols that related to an individual’s career
or achievements, such as a ship at sea or a leaning anchor for a former
captain or privateer.  There are even portraits carved of the person
themselves, giving you a glimpse of what they looked like or wore though
no painting of them exists.

Each Gravestone Tells a Story

Unlike today where we
usually find only the years
of a person’s birth and
death on their stone,
gravestones of centuries
past told the story of their
lives.  Often you find references to family members, achievements (such as
“Revolutionary War Soldier”), causes of death (such as “
Barberously slaine by
ye French & Indien enimie
”), occupations, and many other events that made
their lives unique.

Poetry and prose were often added, describing the beauty of life and the
solace of death.  At times these were even written by a family member such
as a husband to his deceased wife.  In other examples, the person’s status or
occupation in life called for the services of a more illustrious author, such as
an epitaph in Kittery, Maine written by the 19th century poet Robert
Browning for a famous actor of that age, Levi Thaxter.

New England being largely founded by people seeking a place to practice
their religion freely, you can often tributes of their devotion in religious
quotes, biblical excerpts and phrases of praise.  The severity of the Puritan
religion often called for equally severe forewarnings, such as in the case of
the following epitaph:

Come mortal man & cash an eye,
read thy doom, prepare to die.

In later years when the Puritan sternness wore away, the beauty of Heaven
and the afterlife was more commonly referred to as in “This life is but a
passing dream, We soon shall wake in heaven.”

Military service was commonly rewarded (although at times much later) by
markers commemorating the wars people served in or carved directly onto
the stone.  It’s not uncommon to see a record of bravery with the words “A
Soldier of the Revolution”.  Veterans from every war from the beginnings of
America lie in our burying grounds.  Members of colonial militia, defenders
of early town garrisons, Revolutionary war heroes that fought for the country’
s liberty and Civil War generals that helped hold it together lie side by side
in every cemetery.

During the Victorian Era, when the living dealt with death more frequently,
there was a renaissance of art and beauty that was also reflected in their
cemeteries.  Death was not a fearsome event to them but a fact of life.  They
therefore included cemeteries as a useful part of life.  The grounds were kept
as beautiful parks, and were used as such.  Strolling and even picnics at the
resting place of a loved one was a common event.  

The dark symbols of Puritanism were discarded for towering pillars topped
with Grecian urns.  The grey slate stone used in colonial times was replaced
with sparkling white marble (which at the time was thought to last for
eternity, and was shining and bright unlike the melted appearance it has
today due to acid rain). The grounds were kept well manicured, with
flowering shrubs and healthy trees.  Many today still retain some of this
beauty, offing an excellent place to stroll, jog or meditate.

When you lift off the stigma these places have received through the changes
in society’s beliefs over the centuries, you can see underneath the culturally
valuable and interesting places they are to visit.  Use them as outdoor
museums, and they display a summary of sorts of the history of America,
and show us a study of our culture.

About the Author: Jennifer Marcelais is the creator of A Very Grave Matter,  
a web site of New England gravestone photographs and history, and owner
Soul Oyster Web Studios,  a Web site development, Internet marketing
and graphic design company based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.   To
contact Jennifer, send an email to

See also:
Old Cemeteries of New Hampshire & Vermont
Ghosts of Bethel, Maine
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Graveyards in New England

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More Travel Info
Here are two of the
author's favorite
graveyards in
northern New

North Cemetery,
Maplewood Ave.,
Portsmouth New
Unique qualities: General
William Whipple (signer
of the Declaration of
Independence, friend of
Washington and
Revolutionary War
general), Prince Whipple
(slave owned by William
Whipple, fought in the
Revolutionary War and is
depicted in Leutze's
painting Washington
Crossing the Delaware.),
Colonial Governor John
Langdon and family, many
Revolutionary War
soldiers including british
officer Andrew Tombs

Old Burying Yard,
York Street / Route
1a, Old York Village,
Unique qualities: located
among many historic home
museums like the Old Gaol,
includes early settlers of
York (est. 1623), the “Witch’
s Grave” Mary Nasson,
Royalist/Loyalist during the
Revolution and local judge
Jonathan Sayward, “Indian
Fighter” Jeremiah Moulton
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