Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cemeteries at the Heart of Communities

Turkey Hill Cemetery, Merrimack, NH
The study of gravestones and cemeteries is a field close to my heart. As an undergraduate, I was first introduced to the idea of studying the art of gravestones in an introductory American art history class. I chose that topic for an independent study project, received a stipend to write "Gravestones: A Reflection on American Lifestyles," and the paper was accepted for presentation at Caltech's Undergraduate Research Opportunities conference in 1991. That was a long time ago, but visiting graveyards has been a consistent part of my adult life and burial grounds remain enchanting places for me.

Why do I like graveyards?

Nature and man live together quite comfortably in our graveyards
  •  They help people be remembered how they want to be remembered. Whether we wish to reach out to a God, to be remembered for our good deeds, to mention our connection to family...the gravestone often becomes the place to display our legacy, literally in stone.
  • They are quiet peaceful places that invite contemplation of all sorts. In a graveyard, nature and humanity are often tied together. We can feel something bigger than ourselves and beyond ourselves. (I like to write in a cemetery whenever I can, for this reason.)
  • Like most things created by humans, gravestones reveal trends in tastes and design. We can track changes in history and views by examining gravestones.
  • Gravestone art is really, really amazing. We see carvers' talents on the stones. We can follow these artists and their journeys up and down the coasts or inland. We see how the fine art of the times influenced iconography. The symbols the artists placed on gravestones also reveal much about their times.
Gravestone iconography reflects trends and artists
  • Epitaphs are often poetic and/or funny. 
  • The old-fashioned names on stones are beautiful, interesting, or enlightening.
  • I feel connected in a graveyard, to both the past and the future.
Names on gravestones are fascinating
This morning I had the opportunity to visit Turkey Hill Cemetery in Merrimack, NH. I pass by this site frequently, but I didn't have a chance to visit until today. It was perfect. It's a drizzly day - perfect cemetery weather. 

With some research on the Internet at home, I was happy to see that my genealogist friends have been hard at work mapping this site. I would love to see some straight-on black and white photos that can best show the imagery. I also hope that the town can spend some money to clean the lichen off the stones. We are very lucky to have these precious artifacts right in our own backyards. I hope that everyone recognizes their historical value. (See my article on Copp's Hill burial ground for more reflection on this.)

The connection between archives and gravestones is always fascinating. As with other artifacts, archives help us better understand their history. Whereas the documentation for other artifacts is sometimes difficult to find, records about American graveyards is usually found in town records, family papers, and church archives. In Merrimack:

Information about Turkey Hill Cemetery is posted at the site
"The first burying ground mentioned in town records is that of the meetinghouse, located on Meetinghouse Road near where it joins Turkey Hill Road. It is now known as Turkey Hill Cemetery."

In a way that few other places can, a graveyard supplies a sense of community space. This is the last and most important reason why I love them. In early New England, a church was a requirement for the establishment of a town. Churches were usually placed in a centralized location that was at least somewhat convenient for most people. Located beside their churches, New Englanders established their first graveyards. This allowed families and loved ones, neighbors and leaders to remain close to those in the community even after death. Graveyards link us to "them" and link us to others who remember and bury their dead around the world.


  1. Though you sometimes surprise me with the way in which you do so, I love how you find ways to link back to your overarching theme of providing a sense of community space. This must be your life message!

  2. You are very sweet Jacqi. I suppose that is my message.