October Q&A: Plotting the Past
David Watters is an academic with a bushelful of credentials – professor of English at UNH, director of the Center for New England Culture, a scholar for the N.H. Humanities Council, a trustee of the Robert Frost farm and an expert on the history of gravestones, to name a few. But ask him a serious question – like is it OK to walk on graves – and another aspect of Watters is likely to emerge. “Not unless you want a hand to grab your ankle,” he says.
Most people are more inclined to whistle past graveyards rather than study what’s in them. Why do you do it?
I remember as children we held our breath driving past graveyards. When my step-grandfather died, my grandmother took me with her to visit his grave. I wandered around, amazed at the carvings, the strange faces, angels, cherubs – I thought, what is this? My interest grew deeper when I was in college.
What sustained the interest over all these years?
I find graveyards are a way of connecting with the past and with the values that made New England culture what it is today. There may have been forces out of the control of early New Englanders – distemper that wipes out half of the children, Indian attacks – but they still had such resolute hope. I find it compelling that this art can be so life-giving even as it commemorates death.
What should we look for if we ever get brave enough to walk through a graveyard?
In the early period, 1600s, 1700s, the emphasis on religion and the presence of death was reflected in death heads, hourglasses and bones. Around the Revolution, America wanted to revive democracy for modern times and so you saw urns and willow trees, symbols borrowed from Greece and Rome. Today it’s much more about the personality of the person who died. The gravestones might have a motorcycle, a view of Sandwich Notch or a fishing boat. I like this new stuff. It says people are taking control of the commemoration.
The coolest graveyards in the state?
I’d say Portsmouth’s Point of Graves cemetery, Pine Hill cemetery in Hollis and Pinkerton Cemetery in Derry. There are some in the Connecticut River Valley, too. There, the old gravestones are sandstone.
The oldest grave?
The oldest surviving stone is from about 1670, in the Point of Graves cemetery. Before then wooden markers were used. The earliest stone used was slate; marble and granite were later. The quarries didn’t open until the 1810s, 1820s.
Ever seen a ghost?
I don’t believe in them, but I’ve seen one or two, but not in a graveyard.
Watters will talk about gravestones and beliefs about spirits in the libraries in Moultonborough on Oct. 10 and in Rye on Halloween Eve. For more information visit the Association for Gravestone Studies at www.gravestonestudies.org.