Gravestones Are Unlikely Teachers

In a time of pandemic, New Hampshire’s cemeteries remind us there’s more to life than death
Troubled Ground

Nestled under nut trees, Old Hill Graveyard tells the story of Londonderry’s earliest days. Photo by Kristen Smith

Tipped off by my brother-in-law, an avid hiker of the Whites, I’m on the hunt today in the Ossipee Range. The country road that winds through Tamworth passes a sign for the Barnstormers Theatre and, later, the White Pines Recreation Area. But I urge my car on as the forest thickens. Unlike the crowds of leaf peepers who will inundate the area in a few short weeks, I’m not here on vacation. I’m looking for a cemetery.

Two years ago, I buried my husband in another range of mountains, the Pacific Northwest’s mighty Cascades, after his death in a hiking accident. Covid-19 travel restrictions have confounded attempts to regularly visit his grave, so I’m here in Tamworth today by proxy — to find another cemetery like his, framed by mountains and far from the madding crowd. After enduring stifling sorrow and pandemic news for too long, I’m searching for fresh air and quiet, a place to remember and repair, to grieve and be grounded.

Oriented by a single GPS point, I know the spot before my car’s navigation signals I’m there. The trees begin to thin, and I slowly pull to the side of the road. Killing the engine, I search the tree line for what my brother-in-law assured me I’d find. And there she is — beautiful Mount Chocorua, framed by red oaks and sugar maples and a stand of white pines. Fowlers Mill, a quiet country cemetery rests in her shadow.

It might be hard to imagine a cemetery being an attractive destination during a pandemic, but as I walk the mossy rows of Fowlers Mill, I can’t help but think this might actually be the perfect location to find clarity in the midst of media buzz and hope when life feels dark.

With bare Chocorua standing backdrop, one can reckon with life’s fragility and honor sacrifice here at the final resting place of James Wiggin, Civil War hospital steward — a healthcare worker in his own day. Here, beside the little graves of twin sisters Mercy and Ellen Folsom, we can ground ourselves in the truth of what really matters. In this season when death fills headlines and the evening news, New Hampshire’s cemeteries offer space for remembrance and rebirth.

Meeting Family

Inspired by my trip to Tamworth, I find that I crave a cemetery’s wise and measured teaching. So, I set off again, this time just a short drive south through the Lakes Region to the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen.

Established in 1997, this expansive, tranquil cemetery honors resident and non-resident veterans alike with a stately resting place recognizing their service. I don’t know anyone buried here at the cemetery, but after a few hours spent here on a Saturday afternoon, I feel as though I do.

I’m surprised to find my eyes cloud with tears as I crouch in the grass between the rows of marble stones. They’re so polite and uniform, like a thousand soldiers standing at salute. But these are more than a faceless platoon. There’s Steven, son and brother who was “kind in spirit,” and Norman, the loving husband and father. There’s Paul, “Ruth’s true love and best friend,” and Jean, the faithful wife and loving grandmother.

I look across the verdant field bounded by trees with leaves about to turn, and I can almost imagine a vibrant family reunion like those hosted in cemeteries across America after the Civil War, children tossing balls back and forth, women chatting together as they decorate graves. My eyes drift back to the rows of stones, and I realize those who rest here are not strangers. We are kin.

As I meet beloved family members through the words their loved ones have chosen so carefully, these quiet, etched voices remind me that we are bound to one another. Here in this restful place, far from my own husband’s grave, I may still commune with family. After a long season of national division and unrest, the cemetery speaks of the ties that bind us. It calls us to a higher love for one another, one that honors our differences and celebrates the strength we find in unity of purpose.

Apples and Immigrants

Tucked back behind an aging apple orchard in my childhood hometown of Londonderry sits one of the oldest cemeteries in the state, Old Hill Graveyard, and its sister cemetery, Pillsbury. The elder dates to 1733, while the newer Pillsbury is still expanding. Together they rest on a gentle rise above the orchards I passed each day on the way to school, rows of trees where the warm sweetness of apples hung in the air on crisp fall days.

Nestled under nut trees, Old Hill Cemetery tells the story of Londonderry’s earliest days. Scots-Irish immigrants are buried here, forever home now in their adopted country. These first settlers to southern New Hampshire fled political and religious persecution and carved out new lives in Londonderry’s rocky soil. William Dickey came with his wife and three children to settle nearby Todd’s Brook. Presbyterian minister Angus McAllister arrived longing for freedom to practice his faith in peace.

Rt Portsmouth African Burying Ground Memorial Park 03 Wiki

The African Burying Ground is the oldest and largest known excavated burial ground in North America for both free and enslaved Africans. Photos Courtesy Wikicommons

Once the home of Woodmont Orchards, this little stretch of Londonderry is now designated Apple Way, a New Hampshire Scenic and Cultural Byway. In the fall, families come from all around to U-pick at the four remaining orchards in town. They reap their harvest, then gather around warm cider and donuts, a choreography of the immigrant experience centuries before them.

Scottish and Irish immigrants brought apples with them to Londonderry when they came, a source of nourishment and a taste of the home they’d loved and left. These settlers rest now at Old Hill, surrounded by the trees they prized, reminding us that what each brings to this country makes us all richer. I look out over the stubby gravestones, worn black with age and weather, and see the trees heavy with fruit. From its perch above the orchards, Old Hill quietly urges us to renew our commitment to peaceful discourse, to understanding, to welcoming those different from ourselves.

Finding Hope Beneath the Street

From Londonderry, I point my feet toward the seacoast, and I find this commitment tested as I walk down Portsmouth’s cobbled streets in search of the African American Burying Ground. Wedged in a little nook between Court and State streets, the burial ground speaks words I need to hear as summer turns to fall. I need reminding at this hallowed spot that processing loss means sitting with grief, that death always precedes rebirth. That listening is the first step to opening my hands and heart to the gifts others bring.

When coffins were unearthed from the street in 2013, their appearance began a public reckoning with our small state’s role in injustice and oppression. Over 200 unmarked graves rest below in this space now designated as a memorial park for enslaved Africans and African Americans who came and worked in the New World.

I’m not sure what to do when I first arrive at this cemetery. It is so unlike the others I have visited. But grief can bind us to one another, across cultures and experiences, even across the years. At the entrance to the memorial park, I stand close to the statue of the African man who watches and mourns. I know he’s just made of bronze, but something in me wants to reach out and hold his hand. I’ve known bitter loss myself, and, while it cannot compare to generational grief and trauma, grief is not exclusive. It touches us all. My heart breaks for all he has lost.

I search his eyes and walk quietly along the brick-marked course and read the signs. In my own grief, I’ve known that listening and presence are the greatest gifts. Platitudes and pat answers fall flat. So, here I am. To listen. To grieve. To honor a loss not my own, and yet also my own. I’m here to find a better way, through national tensions and illness, through racial and political discord that threatens to unravel the beauty of what these cemeteries say we are and can become. If we will listen and grieve, these quiet cemeteries will teach us, will lead us to a better way.

A brisk wind blows and I pull my jacket a little closer. In this season of unrest and uncertainty, cemeteries are some of the most encouraging spaces that I know. Hope can be found in the most unlikely of places, even beneath your feet.

Categories: Family-friendly things to do, People, Weekend Trips