Cemetery club keeps gravestone stories alive
GREENFIELD, Mass. (AP) — “Think my friends when this you see
How my wife has dealt by me
She in some oysters did
Some poison for my lot and share
Then of the same I did partake
And nature yielded to its fate
Before she my wife became
Mary Felton was her name.”
Stories lurk in graveyards throughout Franklin and Hampshire counties, and throughout New England as a whole.
The stones, carved and cold in the October air, tell these tales, in graveyards like the Pelham Hill Cemetery where Warren Gibbs (1823-1860) lies, having “died by arsenic poison,” according to the above epitaph on the stone erected by his brother, William.
No bones about it: Graveyards aren’t the spooky places they’re made out to be, especially around All Hallows Eve. The stones there are monuments of artistic expression, lore and, in some cases, even a dark levity.
Bob Drinkwater “had never set a foot in a cemetery” as a University of Massachusetts student in the spring of 1968, when a friend suggested he join her and some friends who were going to do some gravestone rubbings at the North Amherst Cemetery.
“I couldn’t imagine what it was, but why not? I went along,” recalls Drinkwater, who wound up taking his first archeology course the following term and eventually changed his major from English to anthropology.
Drinkwater, who’d been bitten by the gravestone bug, became a member of the Greenfield-based Association for Gravestone Studies, attending its organizational event in Dublin, N.H. in 1976, at the height of the nation’s bicentennial celebration, “with lots of interest in all things colonial,” the amateur Amherst archeologist recalled.
“People came from out of the woodwork who were unbeknownst to each other who were very interested in old gravestones, each whittling in their own corner,” he said. “When they got together, it lit a spark.”
Within a year, many of them formed the association, which today has about 1,000 members — largely around New England and the Northeast, but also around the nation and the world. The association, whose trustees are around the Northeast, but also in Texas, Louisiana, Oregon, Canada and elsewhere, has been based in Greenfield for more than 20 years.
Members — who have since also formed local chapters — include other archeologists, art historians, social historians, stone conservationists, carvers, professionals and amateurs, art lovers and social history buffs.
“There’s everything you can think of” on the agenda of the association’s “cemetery camp” annual conferences, which attract anywhere from 100 to 150 enthusiasts from as far away as Australia each June in different locations around the country.
Andrea Carlin of Greenfield, who with Drinkwater is co-chair of the Western New England chapter, is drawn to the “kookier” aspects of cemeteries, she said. These include pet cemetery memorials and tombs of people whose last name have something to do with food, often accompanied by a carving of a melon or a hamburger, for instance.
Most members have academic interests, Carlin said, although “we do have a few ‘goth’ members, and members will trade photos of their favorite hobbies or interests.
“We are very unique,” said the association’s board president, Elise Ceregna of Wakefield, explaining that members include writers, historians, English professors and conservators, as well as hobbyists, all drawn by an interest in ritual burial and how we memorialize our loved ones — “anything that reflects human culture.”
“We have just such a wide variety of topics that people can get interested in or look at,” Ceregna said.
Topics at last year’s annual conference, in Danbury, Conn., ranged from “199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die” and “The Allure of Cemetery Tourism” to “What Should We Do About Confederate Monuments?” and “The Necropolis Railway of Sydney, Australia.” (Next year’s conference will be held in Boiling Springs, N.C.)
The association also publishes its annual Markers journal, with articles such as ‘“Gothic’ Cast-Iron Gravemarkers of New Hampshire (And Beyond)” and “Muslim Gravestones in Detroit: A Study in Diversity.” It also publishes a quarterly bulletin, which last winter-spring featured, “Gravestones of the Famous and Infamous,” including “Here Lies Buried the Body of John Belushi: ‘I may be gone, but Rock and Roll lives on.’”
After finding Peter Spaulding’s broken gravestone at the edge of Mount Hope Cemetery in Leverett, TaMara Conde, who operates Historic Gravestone Services, repaired it and put it back next to his wife’s marker. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ After finding Peter Spaulding’s broken gravestone at the edge of Mount Hope Cemetery in Leverett, TaMara Conde, who operates Historic Gravestone Services, repaired it and put it back next to his wife’s marker. - Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ
“Reader you also shortly must,
be stripped of life and turned to dust.”
— Federal Street Cemetery, stone of Alexander Hamelton, who died July 6, 1803
TaMara Conde of New Salem remembers visiting the cemetery every day as a girl growing up in Ohio to visit the stone of her brother, who died in a car crash when she was 4½. Those visits gave her a “respect and love for stonework,” which she has turned into her profession of doing gravestone restoration around the country.
Conde, who operates Historic Gravestone Services, said, while repairing stones at Leverett’s Mount Hope Cemetery, “To me, they’re all mysteries. That’s one of the things we love about it. You go in, and there’s the husband and the first wife, the second wife . But they’re not always clearly marked. So you have to kind of go in and figure out what the story was — he was 86 and she died in childbirth, and she was only 32. And wait a minute! That’s wife number two or three!”
Conde, who’s followed the trail of names on the headstones from Boston up to Portland, Maine, and then across to Oregon — like Lyman, Bagg, Sedgewick and Clark — said, “There’s so many aspects” of gravestones, from the artistic and structural, to the historic and geological, that the wonder can go on for all eternity.
Even the small Leverett cemetery, tucked away on Chestnut Hill Road, where she used tiny red flags to mark stones dating back to the early 1800s that she’s straightening, cleaning or repairing, is filled with silent stories of deep connections, like the broken grave marker of Peter Spaulding that she found at the graveyard’s edge. Conde repaired the stone and returned it beside the grave of Spaulding’s wife.
Often, she said, money to do the work comes from Community Preservation Act funding that the towns’ historical commissions can access.
There’s a deep fascination that draws Conde and countless other antiquities aficionados to ancient cemeteries like Mount Auburn near Boston, the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France, or those of the San Francisco, Calif., necropolis suburb, Colma, as well as to the hundreds of graveyards that dot New England’s towns and cities.
Connected by websites and by the Greenfield-based association, Conde said, “We now know we exist, so we don’t feel so isolated. We felt like we were the only ones, and thought we must be weird.”
Ceregna added that whether it’s, “objects, beliefs, popular culture, literary culture, visual culture — it’s a huge menu of all sorts of areas of possible interest. And it’s all there, in the cemetery.”
With help from TaMara Conde, who operates Historic Gravestone Services, Mary Ripley’s gravestone is now upright and level in Mount Hope Cemetery in Leverett. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ With help from TaMara Conde, who operates Historic Gravestone Services, Mary Ripley’s gravestone is now upright and level in Mount Hope Cemetery in Leverett. - Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ
“Vain censorius beings little know
What they must soon experience below,
Your lives are short, eternity is long;
O think of death, prepare & then begone
Thus art & Nature’s powers and charms
And drugs & receipts and forms
Yield all, at last, to greedy worms,
A despicable prey.
— Bernardston marker of Dr. Polycarpus Cushman, who died in 1797
A dysentery epidemic descended on Greenfield in 1802, resulting in 57 of the 68 recorded deaths that year, mostly of young people.
Yet, only 42 of their headstones have been found in the town’s cemeteries, Drinkwater noted, including a collection of three stones at Federal Street Cemetery placed by Daniel and Lucinda Clay for their three sons, who died within days of one another.
Perhaps capitalizing on the 1802 epidemic, Luke Carter advertised in the Greenfield Recorder, then called the Greenfield Gazette, that October, “GRAVE STONES that are best made, and cheap as can be had.”
Drinkwater, who taught a gravestone studies class at Greenfield Community College, is at work on a book based on research he began 30 years ago on such western Massachusetts gravestone carvers, from colonial times until about 1840, when the craft gave way to commercialism. Additionally, he is working on an article about the more than a dozen professional and amateur carvers of Franklin County.
Among them were John Locke who worked in Whately and Deerfield from the 1770s to mid-1790s; Solomon Ashley of Deerfield who was active from about 1780 to 1810; Jonathan Allen of Bernardston, active from the mid-1790s to the 1820s; Bernardston’s Chapin brothers, who worked from around 1810 to the 1840s; and Hopkins Woods, whose signed or initialed works appear in Sunderland, Ashfield, Whately, Deerfield, Conway and Hatfield.
“As long as they were doing all of the work by hand, idiosyncrasies abounded,” said Drinkwater, who offered a talk last month in Sunderland about its Riverside Cemetery. “The trick is to recognize the way they carved a face or wings, an urn, hands or certain letters. Everyone had a slightly different way of doing it, and some of them had very different ways of doing it. A lot of these guys were self-taught, so they would settle on a particular way of making an ‘A’ or the tail on a lowercase ‘y.’”
Samuel, Seth and Caleb Chapin cut slate from Bernardston’s West Mountain quarry, while other carvers made use of metamorphic sandstone from New Salem, schist from Ashfield and sandstone from other parts of the Pioneer Valley.
Then came the marble gravestones from a belt that stretched northward from around Danbury, Conn. to Vermont’s Champlain Valley.
“Folks in Berkshire County got it into their heads they had a gold mine in those marble quarries and they could make a small fortune if they started shipping it,” Drinkwater said.
By the 1780s, the first commercial quarries began operation, and the opening of the Erie Canal in the 1820s and the railroads in the 1850s and ’60s made it available for shipment around the country. Ceregna noted that the development of pneumatic drills for quarrying resulted a shift from marble to granite for headstones.
But before that commercialization, gravestones sold locally for $5 to $10, Drinkwater said.
“When it came to inscribing it, they usually charged by the letter. If you were long-winded, you paid more,” he said.
“THIS MONUMENT IS ERECTED TO THE MEMORY OF Lieut Lemuel Delano, who died Dec. 21, 1792,” reads one Riverside Cemetery stone, signed by Samuel Daugherty of Whately, who also engraved its $15 price, along with this inscription:
“Life how short, Eternity, how long.”
Information from: The (Greenfield, Mass.) Recorder, http://www.recorder.com