Walking through an old cemetery is like walking through time – a trip through names, dates and period styles. A cemetery is a library of stone pages. Beneath each stone, behind each name, is a back story, both public and private.
Why are we so curious?
It’s human nature to cherish stories, particularly so of our own families. They tie us in a personal way to the passage and passages of history. They add to, fill in and deepen our own stories, our own identities. Knowing the past is understanding the present. The human species is forever seeking meaning.
So we research family history and, in this case, the graves of our ancestors.
In the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, I have found ancestors in Passumpsic, Westmore, Brownington, East Charleston and Morgan.
In passing through such towns, I also gain insight into the flavor of the lives of those who once lived there. The towns have changed, of course, but not necessarily that much.
The industrial age has produced electricity, telephones, the radio, the automobile, the airplane, television and now the computer, but the houses, the barns, the churches and schools, barring a fire or a developer, still remain, as do the pastures, mountains, lakes and rivers. Our ancestors would still recognize home. We, in the present, can still sense what life once was.
Human beings are products of both genetics and environment. A visit to a town and a cemetery thus offers a double insight into the past.
My first cemetery tour through northern Vermont came in 1968 upon completion of college, which had been interrupted by a three-year hitch in the U.S. Army.
My curiosity had been piqued by the discovery of a box of old photographs in the apartment of my grandmother. Who were these people? What were their stories?
Answers would come on a trip through Vermont with my grandmother, an aunt and a great-aunt, all of whom are now buried in those very same cemeteries. From them, I heard and recorded the stories of each ancestor at each stop. The stories, the gravestone records and the original pictures that sparked my interest now make up a 200-page history of my family.
Human beings are egocentric. We live our lives thinking that we are unique, which we are, but we share universal experiences and feelings – hope and fear, joy and sorrow, success and failure. Some we share, some we keep to ourselves.
But sharing these essences is what we seek when we research our histories. Standing over a grave, there is also an urge to share the present with the past, but history does not work backward.
The names – Marshall, Calkins, Robinson, Pierce, Hunt, Davis, Bly – have funneled down to me, a Deane. The name spellings may have varied over the generations, and some of the dates may be in dispute, but these are now the records.
The cemeteries themselves range across hillsides, overlook lakes, run along out-of-the-way country roads, claim prominence in town centers, even hide in secluded woods. The stones themselves range from the Colonial skull and crossbones to the rising sun to the plain slab to the modern personal whimsy.
Some stones record just the facts – name, relationships, dates of birth and death. Some include verses, whether biblical (“From ashes to ashes …”) or personal (“Able to swing a scythe to the age of 95 and able to mount a horse at the age of 105”).
Visits to cemeteries in themselves become part of the story.
For example, in looking for a Deane ancestor in western Massachusetts, while walking along a row of ancient stones, I once broke through the surface, up to a knee, the victim of a sunken grave. Needless to say, I didn’t linger long, pausing only to inform the cemetery superintendent of the development.
Years ago, at the Passumpsic burial of a great-aunt, my grandfather’s cantankerous older sister, the niece who had taken over the task of seeing to her aunt’s final days, lost her footing on the uneven ground near the edge of the still-open grave.
Catching herself at the last moment, she exclaimed, somewhat in humor, “She’s still out to get me!”
And in a lighter vein, while attending the burial of another great-aunt on the steep hillside of Lakeview Cemetery in Westmore, I heard the presiding minister say of this aunt, “She asked to be cremated so that we wouldn’t have to carry her up this hill.”
The grave is the final resting place, where the story ends for the individual, though it continues for the succeeding generations. A walk in a cemetery is a walk in the park, a park of monuments and memories.
Not all are interested in following this trail, but unless someone does, it eventually disappears. And with it goes an enlightening glimpse of the past.
Stuart Deane lives in Newburyport.