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Living With the Dead


William Whipple grave in Portsmouth, NH (c)

Just a few years back Portsmouth's North Cemetery was in desperate shape. John Langdon, New Hampshire's first governor and a friend of George Washington, was lucky to get his mausoleum lawn mowed. The tomb of William Whipple, who signed the Declaration of Independence, was perpetually littered with beer cans, wine bottles and trash. The receiving tomb at the back of the sacred site was until recently used as a kid's clubhouse. Audrey and Irwin Bierhans, who have lately pulled historic cemetery back into shape now offers tours of North Cemetery. She says they once had to call ahead to ask police to roust vagrants who drink and sleep among the tombs. During one tour they found a tomb open and the caskets were exposed, she says.

It's blood, ultimately, that bears the burden. The dead depend on living descendants to keep their graves in order. But the descendants, in most cases, are long gone. Ancient families who founded the Seacoast have often died out or moved on. In Wells, the Littlefield descendants still live and farm where their ancestors did 350 years ago. The family cemetery is within sight of the family farm. The river of blood still flows. But such longevity is rare these days with family farms being sold off for country living condos.

More typical is the story of Captain John Hamilton, once a wealthy South Berwick ship builder. Like Whipple and Langdon, his house has been beautifully restored. But his grave, deep under the pines of Oldfields Cemetery, is a crumbling pile. One side of his dark table tomb appears to be kicked in. The back panel has tumbled off into the dirt, and visiting a few years ago, I could not resist a peak inside. No body was there and a crude brick support column too was broken.

"It's been that way as long as I can remember," Paul Colburn told me. Colburn was president of the Old Berwick Historical Society for 15 years. The vandalism, he says, could be 50 years old.


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Friday, December 15, 2017 
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