« Previous  
 Next »

Luskin: Old Cemeteries

05/22/12 7:55AM By Deborah Luskin
 MP3   Download MP3 

(Host) Commentator Deborah Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator who likes visiting old cemeteries, despite once being cursed for doing so.

(Luskin) Some years ago I volunteered to serve on a cemetery committee. I figured that taking an inventory of old cemeteries would be both straightforward and non-controversial. I was wrong on both counts.

As I learned at our first, organizational meeting, what was driving the Select board to charge this committee was a woman with a jar of a relative's cremains that she wanted to bury in the old cemetery where the people who had built her house were lain to rest - two hundred years earlier.

In the time-honored way of committees, we worked with careful deliberation, first ascertaining the names and number of antique cemeteries in town and then determining their whereabouts. With the help of a local authority on old cemeteries, we were able to locate the lesser-known burial grounds and learn about the different burial patterns that evolved to meet the changing needs of each generation.

In the early years of Newfane's settlement, nearly every hilltop hosted a cemetery for those who lived nearby. Centralization into the town's three modern cemeteries didn't occur until the twentieth century and the advent of the motorized hearse. Furthermore, people used to be buried in family plots, but this arrangement was ill-suited to mechanized mowing, and even in Newfane's oldest cemetery on top of Newfane Hill, the stones have been reset in straight rows.

There were seven of us on the committee. We made field trips together, sometimes bushwhacking our way to cemeteries that were nearly reclaimed by the forest; we drove on remote back roads; we read old gravestones; we learned a lot of local history; and we had a really good time.

We made our trips in the early spring and late fall, when the landscape allows for the best viewing of the ground's contours. And while we were able to see that there was apparently considerable unused space in most cemeteries, there were also many missing stones and many uncertain graves. We also found that each cemetery told a story of a particular family, settlement or time. Moreover, each cemetery exuded tranquility - a kind of hush that we responded to by whispering while we made our tour of inspection.

These old cemeteries gave us a glimpse into the social history of our town, and when it came time to make our recommendation to the select board, we were unanimous in suggesting that no more burials take place in these antique cemeteries, so as to preserve that social history intact.

Of course, this did not sit well with the woman who started it all, and she cursed the committee, hissing, "I hope you lose a loved one!"

Twelve years later, three members of the committee have indeed passed on, and eventually, the rest of us are sure to follow. Whether or not we believe in curses, there's no cheating death. Personally, I take comfort in believing that how we live will determine how we are remembered.
comments powered by Disqus
Supported By
Become an Underwriter | Find an Underwiter