Guest post courtesy of Roxie Zwicker
As the colorful leaves are spiraling off the trees throughout autumn in New England, the bones of our history reveal themselves to us. Old gravestones and cemeteries are revealed on hillsides, in farm fields and even along the sides of busy roads. Oftentimes people pass by cemeteries and don’t realize the history that lies within. Maybe it’s the thought that cemeteries are too morbid or creepy and that there are other ways to learn the history of a city or town. But cemeteries have much to tell us if we just take a moment to connect with them and hear their stories.
“New England contains some of the oldest gravestones in the United States today, with some that date back to the 1600s.”
New England contains some of the oldest gravestones in the United States today, with some that date back to the 1600s. The challenges and hardships of trying to establish settlements in an unfamiliar place were issues that people faced on an everyday basis. Adding the fact that there was no modern medicine and no vaccines, many children died young, and the mortality rate was somewhere around the age of thirty-five.
The religious “hellfire and brimstone” teachings of the Puritan church also had an impact on the beliefs of the early settlers. The imagery and epitaphs contained on the gravestones are reflections of a time from which we have become far removed. Images of skulls and crossbones, death imps and father time were all carved on the gravestones as a reminder of our own mortality.
The belief was that people who passed by the burial grounds and saw the grim gravestone carvings would be moved to ponder their own existences on earth. Many people were buried in small, family cemeteries on the property that they owned instead of in common burial grounds. Throughout New England, these cemeteries can be viewed in the middle of farm fields, next to shopping plazas and even along state highways.
“Tales of sea captains, Revolutionary soldiers and ministers were carved on the stones.”
Gravestones quickly became one of New England’s first folk art forms. Not only did gravestones depict dramatic artwork, the inscriptions on the stones also often told the story of the person buried there. Tales of sea captains, Revolutionary soldiers and ministers were carved on the stones. There are countless gravestones throughout New England that describe men who died “at sea” or in “service to their country” or even who “went out of this world rejoicing into heaven.”
As the belief systems changed in the eighteenth century, carvings of angels replaced skulls, and death was believed to be a blessed reunion with those loved and lost. The nineteenth century ushered in even more changes in cemeteries. Burial grounds faced the challenges of being overcrowded, so a new design of a garden-style cemetery offered people the chance to visit a cemetery designed like a welcoming arboretum.
“It was believed that in the Victorian era, ‘nature offered special keys for unlocking the mysteries of life and death.’”
Two Massachusetts cemeteries, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain, brought about a stylistic change to the burial grounds of old. These cemeteries offer the visitor a wealth of exquisite Victorian-era memorials and statues surrounded by flowering bushes and majestic trees. It was believed that in the Victorian era, “nature offered special keys for unlocking the mysteries of life and death.”
Stories of ghosts in cemeteries seem almost as numerous as the gravestones themselves. Old town history books are filled with folklore about spirits that wander the hallowed grounds, and there are many today who say that just one visit to a certain cemetery may make you a believer in ghosts. From the big cities like Boston, Massachusetts, to small towns like Acworth, New Hampshire, the ghost stories are part of the history and lore of these places.
Do these spirits reach out from great beyond, beckoning us to the cemeteries to remind us of their lives and stories so that they are not forgotten? It seems to be no coincidence that the gravestones stick out in the popular imagination during this time of year. The Halloween season is when we seem to think about ghosts the most.
“Walk through your local cemetery today to connect with history.”
Perhaps the stones are more visible to remind you to connect with the history and the spirits during this very witching time of year. I invite you to take a walk through your local cemetery today to connect with history. You never know who or what you may discover there.
Roxie Zwicker is known for her unique collection of New England folklore and stories. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in New England, surrounded by its beauty and history. After attending Greenfield Community College for Media Production, Roxie found herself exploring the hidden secrets and forgotten history of New England. Since 1993, she has captured audiences with her fascinating storytelling abilities. In 2002, she started her own business called New England Curiosities, giving tours in New Hampshire and Maine that feature many stories from her repertoire. Roxie and New England Curiosities have been featured on the History Channel and the Travel Channel. She has hosted talks on New England legends and lore from New York to Maine and has been featured in over one hundred publications nationwide, including Better Homes and Gardens. Roxie has published six books, with her most recent being Massachusetts Book of the Dead and New Hampshire Book of the Dead. She hopes to keep the stories of those who settled in New England alive.