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Living With the Dead

They are all around us, and they need our help

Tour local Seacoast cemeteries online

Laighton Cemetery, Star Island, RandallThey are all around us.

In New England, especially, the dead may lie at any turn. They loiter in long gray rows in silent cities, acres wide. They wait at roadside family plots, corralled by iron bars and granite plinths. You come upon them huddled under tiny markers deep in a snarl of forest shrub or lying bone weary -- with no monuments at all -- beneath city parking lots or heaped in ancient pauper's graves.

Something about the barren trees of autumn seems to push the tombstones higher. They stretch stiffly in Fall, then stoop for the hibernation months. November is when the carved slate skulls and granite angels seem the most foreboding. November is when the cemetery leaves crunch and the cold earth cracks, and Yankees recall that only a river of blood separates the dead from us. But blood runs dry and time runs on and the dead can wait forever.

I got the cemetery habit young. With cousins in Sunday clothes we hid among the sculpted stones of Massachusetts while the adults visited the dead. I often rode my bike the mile to the white village church on the hill in Bedford where I grew up. In the cemetery there my mind raged. This was the battleground of new ideas, the coliseum of my philosophy. Here the lurid dreams of Edgar Allen Poe wrestled with the heavenly promises of Jesus. I wandered for years in the fields of the dead, advancing from stone to stone, scraping the moss from fading dates and envisioning the imminent nuclear winter.

Point of Graves, Portsmouth, NH

In retrospect, I might have fared better on a baseball field. But the Celtic brain is a moody lump of haggis, the byproduct, perhaps, of too many tribal ancestors making the best of their dreary stone homes overlooking a bleak and misty moor. Like the little boy in the movie, we see dead people, but it's no big thing.

My father, I should mention, has just finished a computer database of 5,000 graves in the town where my mother has been a deacon. My middle brother Brian, is an archeologist, a digger of long-departed cultures. Youngest brother Jeffrey is a carpenter, but during a jobless spate he once dug graves in the very cemetery where I wandered away my youth. Finding skulls and bones, he says, was common when clearing fresh burial pits. Once, after the backhoe had done the major work, he was six-feet down, trimming out the vacant space between two resident tombs. By law, modern burials are now encased in concrete shells and, stretching out his hands, Jeff could easily touch the cement vaults on either side. Suddenly, he remembers, one wall collapsed, the concrete shield disappearing into hell, exposing the long-buried coffin within.

"I thought there was a corpse," I said, remembering the story. "Didn't a dead guy's hand fall out or a gory head or something?"

"Sorry," Jeff says. "That must be your writer's imagination at work. Just seeing that coffin suddenly appear was enough to give me the heebie-jeebies."

I still wander cemeteries in my middle age , still rub away the lichen, still search for stories just beyond that river of blood. And the dead zones are still everywhere, more prominent even than Dunkin Donut shops. In York, Maine, for example, thousands attended the recent harvest festival that winds between the Old Burying Ground and the First Parish Cemetery at the heart of the village. But there are more dead here, it seems, than living. In the town of York alone, another 200 burial sites survive.

Laighton Cemetery, Star Island

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.

William Whipple grave

Portsmouth's North Cemetery fares even worse. John Langdon, New Hampshire's first governor and a friend of George Washington, is lucky to get his mausoleum lawn mowed. The tomb of William Whipple, who signed the Declaration of Independence, is 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 Irwin, who offers tours of North Cemetery with her husband Bierhans, says they have to call ahead to ask police to roust vagrants who drink near and sleep on the tombs. One tomb was opened so that the caskets were exposed, she says.

A Blue Ribbon task force is studying the Portsmouth problem even now, but lights and restoration, and monitoring are expensive, and the organization has no money. With the price of real estate and the current tax rates, who wants to pay extra to house the dead, even if they knew George Washington?

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 river of blood still flows. And their roadside family plot, overlooking the fields, is well cared for.

But more typical is 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 I cannot resist a peak inside. No body is there and a crude brick support column too is broken.

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

Capt John Hamilton, South Berwicj, ME

"When the British closed the port of Portsmouth," Colburn says as if recalling the days himself, "it put Hamilton out of business. When he died, the whole thing fell apart. The family wasn't able to keep going. They just abandoned the place, and there hasn't been a Hamilton back since about 1825."

1825? This grave has been bloodless all that time. That's nearly two centuries without a living hand to clear the cobwebs and patch the stone.

"It's a very real problem to deal with," Louise Tallman explains. "The older the site, the less the funding, but the greater the historic importance."

The solution, it seems, is a blood transfusion. Genealogy aside, we share a common history with these dead. We share each other's space, like traveling companions in a time machine. Louise proposes a variation on the Adopt-a-Spot campaign used to beautify public lands. Here, instead, the living adopt the dead. I can, for example, become the guardian of a long-dead writer's tomb, or find a damaged grave to mend.

The idea has appeal. I owe the dead a lot -- for their stories, for their lessons, for a lifetime of wandering through their peaceful turf. How hard can it be to keep a couple of tombstones healthy? Just a little muscle is all it takes, the energy of blood to bone.

The world of the dead, after all, extends far beyond the cemetery walls. We live in their abandoned towns, navigate roads that bear their names, read their books, enforce their laws, attend their churches and schools, resell their old possessions and restore their former homes. So itís us or nobody. The regionís historic cemeteries stand or crumble at our command. Those who have already crossed the one-way river of blood can only wait, and sometimes -- when the wind is right -- whisper a low welcoming moan.

Want to visit local cemeteries?
See GOseacoast.com "Grave Sites"

Essay by J. Dennis Robinson.
Photos by J. Dennis Robinson and Peter E. Randall
Copyright (c) 2002 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.


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