It is October and here in the northeast people’s thoughts turn to golden weekend getaways: apple picking, foliage viewing and various and sundry harvest festival activities… I know that I am not alone in my passion for graveyard strolling and I am taking this opportunity to put together something of a “top 10” list - a sampler of exceptional graveyards, suggestions for autumn exploration. The east coast and the northeast in particular, boast so many hundreds of historical burying grounds that any list represents only a tip of the iceberg for taphophiles and layman alike. My own favorites change with each new road trip. That said, these ten each represent something special – a charming, evocative location, an abundance of stones, or most importantly, outstanding examples of the carvers art. It is my hope that my list might inspire you to go out into the world on a journey of graveyard exploration. This is my call to the curious, the Romantic, the Baudelarian flaneurs out there! What you bring to it and what you take away is an intimate personal experience, but a visit to an ancient burial ground connects you to the past, the future and the human condition in general. The journey begins…
Exit off the highway and up a road to a tidy white church, a historic landmark of typical New England charm. High on a hill, neat rows of incised slate markers date from the eighteenth century. The faces seem quaint to a contemporary viewer, like slightly grimmer examples of the classic smiley face, but they are poignant too. Each face represents a soul, small yet significant, having left this life behind and looking forward to whatever eternity has to offer. Some stones represent multiple souls and some bear an ochre tint accentuating the imagery. Take the time to stop and look...
East Derry New Hampshire:
Just across the street from an almost unbelievable old time country post office (the sort of structure Stephen King enjoys dreaming up) sits a nice sized graveyard containing stones of various vintage. For me, as in most cases, the earliest and most primitive hold the most charm. Several stones bear simple folk images, hearts, bones, unusual abstract symbols and obvious coffins. Similar stones to these, as well as a group of soul effigies with modish "flower power" daisies can be found in the cemetery in the nearby town of Chester.
Northampton, Massachusetts:The Commonwealth of Massachusetts boasts the mother load of historic, colonial era burial grounds. I have been working on my gravestone project for over a decade and am constantly amazed by the number of yards I have yet to visit here. From Cape Cod, Plymouth County and Boston, north to New Hampshire and south to Connecticut, all the way west to the New York border, every town on the map has a gem of it's own. There are numerous books covering the subject and on any given day I could number a dozen Massachusetts yards among my favorites. Today I'll settle for just two.
Northampton today is the home of Smith College and something of a lesbian mecca. In a former century it was home to the Reverend Jonathan Edwards and the spiritual movement known as the Great Awakening. The eighteenth century Protestant fervor is the direct reason for the outstanding stone carving in the cities historic graveyard. Connecticut Valley Brownstone also contributes to the beauty of the work found here and the cemetery itself is extensive, containing hundreds of stones. Connecticut brownstone is a red/brown sandstone found in the region and used on thousand of deep relief gravestones. It's also the stone used to create the stereotypical New York City brownstone row house of the nineteenth century.
New Salem, Massachusetts:
The burial ground in New Salem is one of the finds that really excites me the first time I come across it! This town bears no resemblance to it's more famous "Witch Trial, Cotton Mather, Seaport" sister to the east. Hidden off the beaten path, down a nondescript road, you come upon a treasure trove of large unique and evocative stones bearing soul effigies with flamboyant feathered head dresses - some of my all time favorites! Similar stones are found in the surrounding towns and a trip to nearby Wendell offers a single example of "twins" on a stone from the same carving shop.
That's right all you hipsters-you heard me, Brooklyn Connecticut, a small, unassuming crossroads town in the eastern part of the state. If Massachusetts is the mother load, my home state of Connecticut ranks a very close second in terms of all time great colonial graveyards. Connecticut is the reason I love this stuff! From dozens of favorites, I'm choosing Brooklyn today because of it's highly unusual local stone which bears a high iron content, prone to rust, adding an extra dimension to the carvings, both metallic and painterly.
Back when I had a car I used to practically rip the bottom out every time I drove in and made my way toward the far back of the town cemetery where the old colonial stones are located. It's worth the trip though. These stones are cool! Problem is for photographers there is heavy tree shade around the best stones, so seasons when the trees are bare makes for better for photography...and in truth my pics don't do these stones justice-you need to go have a look for yourself, then stop by one of the areas upscale restaurants for a little "day in the country" refreshment.
Newport, Rhode Island:
OK, so I have already gushed over Massachusetts and Connecticut, as far as their graveyards. Now I'm going to gush over one particular yard. The Cemetery at Newport, Rhode Island is GROUND ZERO as far as shear number of stones and scale of burial ground! I had read about this destination for years before ever actually visiting. My initial experience was like Scarlet O'Hara at the train depot, only instead of injured soldiers, it was silent gravestones as far as the eye could see!
The city of Newport has been home to the Steven's family carving shop since the eighteenth century-probably the most commercially successful gravestone carving business of the colonial period and still functioning today. Newport was a major seaport city and Steven's and other Newport stones are found throughout the former colonies as far south as Georgia. If you plan to visit, allow at least a day. If you're a completist, give yourself two or three. Thousands of extant slates from decades and centuries await your discovery. Here are just a couple to whet your appetite.
Trinity Churchyard, Manhattan NYC:
Leaving New England we leave behind Puritan dominance and in New York find a crossroads of colonial cultures. In the greater New York City area, British Anglican and Dutch influence dominate the period graveyards, which are more often than not churchyards. Trinity churchyard sat for many years in the shadow of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Today the Towers are gone, but the stones, dating back to the seventeenth century remain. Trinity Churchyard is a busy tourist destination, but easy to visit and displays many examples of important stone carver's work. It makes a great introductory museum exhibition of the art form. Some of the stones are pock marked with distinctive round holes - the scars of Revolutionary era bullets - oddly appropriate for an urban boneyard!
Muddy Creek, Pennsylvania:
Many people are familiar with Pennsylvania German folk art and craft. I say where there's folk art, there's gravestones! The Muddy Creek Church Cemetery just east of Lancaster is a historic landmark and a glorious collection of high relief red stone folk markers resplendent with tulips, hearts, flowers, crescent moons, cameo portraits, odd abstract motifs and of course, soul effigies. Check it out!
The most interesting New England stones date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As one migrates inland west and then south, the folk tradition is more German than English and the high point of folk art carving is the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth century. In fact, Pennsylvania area carvers migrated southward and the stones from inland Virginia through the Carolinas are influenced by this tradition.
My husband and I took a trip to Virginia to see some of these works. Ceres, Virginia is a up a mountain along the side of a road-not even a cross roads, more like a couple of buildings and the graveyard, but what a charming graveyard it is. Heavy, high relief Pennsylvania-esque stones displaying, hearts, flowers, swirling fylfots and trees of life carved in the most primitive manor. All our northeastern predjudices came to the forefront as sunset approached, and we were nearly out of gas. The dirt path journey down the steep mountain road filled us with visions of Deliverance style hillbilly violence and we were greatly relieved to get back to our hotel in the nearby town of Wytheville without incident.The local PBS station then treated us to back to back documentaries about coal mining and Southern Rock - Seriously!
And speaking of Wythville, check out the graveyard there, one of the only places I know with a plaque dedicated to an individual carver, Laurence Krone.
Abbott's Creek, North Carolina:
The farthest point south I've reached in explorations thus far, is a small churchyard in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Nineteenth century carving in this area represents some of the most unique I have seen anywhere - why? Because it is the first instance I have seen of cut out stone work. These are dimensional masterpieces with peekaboo details. Just Beautiful!
...and of course, this is only the beginning. I hope you will go out and find a few great graveyards of your own! Happy Fall!