I am a regular habitue of old graveyards. This interest does not arise from some morbid fascination with death; I find the prospect of oblivion very disconcerting, and my lone Gothic relationship is mercifully well behind me. Rather, I am drawn to older burial grounds for the clues they hold about the past and the meaning they can bring to this time and place.
One of my favorite books is Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, whose central poetic work is a story of a fictional Illinois prairie town told in the epitaphs of hundreds of its citizens. Each poem gives voice to the dead and animates the spirit of the departed with all the very human flaws and triumphs of spirit possessed in life. The view from the grave is still "through a glass darkly", but freed from the need to dissemble it can be very revealing. I used Spoon River as part of an English as Second Language class I taught over several summers at Phillips Academy, taking my international students strolling through the old burying grounds of Andover to find subjects for their own poetry. For many, this was the first time poetry in English made sense, and consequently, their compositions were deeply personal and highly expressive.
The stones in old graveyards do not speak as directly as those on "The Hill" above Spoon River, inscribed, as they must be, by the living in memory of the dead. Nonetheless they have much to say about both the individuals they memorialize and the communities from which they came. Not only the monuments but the landscape in which the graveyards are situated tells fascinating stories about the natural world and our built environments. Many cemeteries are among the most significant green spaces in our urban regions. Mt. Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston is renowned as a major stopover for neo-tropical migrants on the Atlantic flyway as well as for being the premier example of the America's rural cemetery movement and the design ethic that arose after 1830. In the Spring at Mt. Auburn when the cherry and dogwood blossoms perfume the air, one may encounter dozens of warbler species in a single hour.
Because old burial grounds were managed differently than surrounding agricultural land, they often preserve rare plant species and natural community types that have all but vanished elsewhere. One such graveyard in Southeast Massachusetts preserves one of only a handful of known populations of sandplain gerardia, a globally rare plant that thrives only when its competitors are kept at bay through frequent mowing or fire. Some of the only unplowed land in what was once Tallgrass Prairie is found in old Illinois pioneer cemeteries like the fictional one in Spoon River. Untilled land retains the soil complexity and seed reserves required to sustain remnants of this once pervasive habitat type, and even where prairie restoration efforts seek to reclaim old farmland the resulting habitat is significantly less diverse than was the unplowed prairie.
The oldest markers remaining in New England cemeteries are undressed field stone. Slate was common until the late 1700s when it was often supplanted by sandstone or marble. Granite stones tend to date from the latter half of the 19th century or later. The colonial stone carvers art preserves what are essentially the earliest forms of public sculpture in America. Archaeologists who make a study of New England's funereal art are able to trace the influence of individual stone carvers and their migrations across the region through the motifs they developed and modified. Death's heads, cherubs, urns and willow trees are specific to certain time periods in our nation's early history and reflect changing attitudes about religion and death.
Burial grounds were first located among the settlements of New England, even though they were often neglected, noisome, pestilential places. With the rise of more romantic ideals and the industrialization of our urban centers, cemeteries took on more landscaped attributes. The "rural" or garden cemetery movement (1830-1855) transformed graveyards into places for peaceful reflection amid beautiful surroundings. The Mahaiwe Cemetery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts was expanded along these lines, a fact that local architect Anthony Barnaba rediscovered after the tragic memorial Day Tornado in 1995 devastated a swath of the graveyard and the Great Barrington Fairgrounds before crossing East Mountain and killing three children in nearby Monterey. Barnaba received the contract to design the restoration of the cemetery and his research revealed its original pattern of trees and pathways amid the stones.
Even with more open attitudes about death, New Englanders drew the line at animal internments in their cemeteries. The story goes that a farmer in Mt. Washington, MA, wished to be buried with his oxen, much to the outrage of his neighbors in that community. Denied permission, his heirs managed to inter his beloved animals just outside the cemetery walls. A Michigan lt. artillery battery apparently made the same arrangement for "Old Sam", a dray horse that had become their mascot and survived four years of Civil War without a scratch.
Others in the Berkshire community were marginalized, even in death. The main cemetery in Sheffield Massachusetts has the plain, military issue stones marking the resting place of a couple of members of the storied 54th Massachusetts colored regiment of infantry. There were several African American families living in Sheffield at the time of the Civil War, and 11 of their members joined the 54th. The graves are at the very edge of the cemetery - one is off by itself in a corner - and one wonders whether this was deliberate discrimination on the part of the white community. Racism, to our great discredit, has a long history in New England as well as elsewhere in America.
The Civil War veterans' graves are particularly poignant reminders of what these Berkshire and Litchfield towns sacrificed during that tempestuous period in our nation's history. Regiments recruited entire companies from just a handful of communities, and one bad day in Virginia could be devastating for a small New England village. The Town of Salisbury, Connecticut sent 79 men to the "Litchfield Regiment", which was later reorganized as the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. On June 1st, 1864 at Cold Harbor, Virginia, the "heavies" were thrown as infantry into a suicidal frontal assault and lost 322 casualties: 22 of them from Salisbury.
The saddest stone I think I've ever seen was actually a rubbing done by an elementary student in West Cornwall, Connecticut. It is a child's marker and says simply; "Our Willie; his last words were "I Love Everybody." Death was an ever present fact of life before modern medicine, workplace safety, food inspections and prenatal care.
The old names endure in graveyards and the signposts of our rural byways, even when the families themselves have departed this landscape. Some remain, the descendants of early settlers and still retaining what remains of the family land. Our demographics are shifting in the Berkshires as urban flight and the attractions of country living bring more second home owners who often become primary residents. Still, the old stories are written in the stones.