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Living With the Dead


Star Island cemetery by Peter Randall /

We still shouldn't take our cemeteries for granite. People are dying in record numbers, but it's not like in the good old days. Despite the available array of Space Age, high-tech, fiberglass, and air-tight caskets -- cremation is all the rage. Kids these days are taking the biblical "dust-to-dust" thing literally. If those old Christian preachers end up correct, and the bodies of the dead arise on Judgment Day, the New Wave generation will look like something from an old vacuum cleaner bag. Worse, the zing has gone out of the monument business. Where are the brooding sarcophagi, the witty epitaphs and ornate pilasters? Today's graves look like they were ordered from am online catalog at Tombs 'R Us. They're dull and all the sadder for it.

Meanwhile the great historic headstones are disappearing -- from neglect, from abuse and from the punishing New England weather. One angry teenager with a baseball bat, can wipe out a century of brittle tombs in minutes. It happens, according to Louise Tallman, who has been documenting and restoring Seacoast gravesites for the last three decades.

In her home town of Rye, where there is a single public cemetery, she documented 58 burial sites to date. In the name of progress, cemeteries are sometimes re-located.

"I think we need to keep track of them," she says. "Sometimes people move markers, but don't bother to move the bones."

The oldest stones are disappearing too. In Portsmouth precious few stone graves survive from the 1600s. The oldest marker at Point of Graves is 1682, although the wealthy Pickering family gave the land to the city "for the purpose of burying" in 1671. A plaque in the cemetery, just across from Prescott Park, suggests that Pickering's cows may have toppled the earliest stones as they grazed among the dead.

Before that, an ordinary citizen would have been lucky to be buried with a wooden marker or an ordinary field stone. That makes the late carvings in local cemeteries among the nation's oldest works of art. Yet there they sit, unprotected, like Mona Lisa in the rain. Recently a well-intentioned volunteer group sprayed the ancient stone cemetery wall at Point of Graves with Gunite. It's ugly. It's sad. But it costs a lot of money to do things right.


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News about Portsmouth from

Monday, February 19, 2018 
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