DOT’S BEAT: The Mystique of Our Cemeteries

story and photos by Dot Helling

My first encounter with a cemetery was at age 5, when we were laying my father to rest. He was buried in a beautiful, serene setting, a cemetery where now you need a computer- generated map to locate the graves.

I’m not aware of any such expansion occurring in Vermont cemeteries. Vermont is dotted with small cemeteries. Private cemeteries have as few as one or two graves. The City of Montpelier has three recognized cemeteries: Green Mount, the Elm Street Cemetery and St. Augustine Catholic Cemetery. The Plainmont Cemetery and Poplar Hill Cemetery are located in North Montpelier.

Montpelier’s largest cemetery is the Green Mount Cemetery, established in 1854 and consisting of 35 acres with over 12,000 graves. Elm Street is Montpelier’s oldest cemetery, containing 400 graves. In the early 1800s it replaced the old “Davis Pitch Cemetery,” located west of the North Branch falls.

Elm Street was a burial ground for soldiers of the Revolutionary War and their families. It is maintained by the city. Many stones are missing or in disrepair, but its grounds have the most beautiful snowball bushes (also known as viburnum or hydrangea) in the city.

My favorite Montpelier cemetery is St. Augustine, in the hills above North Street. It serves as a shortcut for walkers to and from Murray Hill. It has a unique city view and a ‘drop dead’ view of Camel’s Hump. It is a great spot for viewing fireworks and a full moon. Best of all, you can walk your dog there and sit for hours in stillness. There is at least one bench for those who fear treading on sacred ground. And there is an old mausoleum plus uncounted family plots, with family names that have defined Montpelier, such as Theriault, Guare, Cody, Heney, Goodrich, Tomasi and Giuliani.

Pretty little Cutler Cemetery on the County Road just over the line in East Montpelier, across from Vermont Compost, consists of primarily war graves. First used in 1820, Cutler contains approximately 1,140 graves. The cemetery was named after Amos Cutler, a survivor of the Revolutionary War.

North Branch Cemetery sits in Middlesex on Bolduc Road just off Route 12. This cemetery was established in 1805 along the banks of the North Branch and contained 100 graves. Fourteen of those graves were swept down the river in the flood of 1927. Seven of the bodies were recovered and, in 1934, when the Army Corps of Engineers built the Wrightsville Reservoir, the cemetery was moved to its current location on higher ground.

The number of cemeteries in surrounding communities surprised me. For instance, Middlesex has 10, the largest being the Middlesex Center-Lewis Cemetery, with over 1,000 graves. The remains of Patty Huntsman rest on a knoll with a breathtaking view of the valley below and of Camel’s Hump. The smallest recorded cemetery in Middlesex is the private Macy Cemetery, with two graves. A small cemetery exists off Bear Swamp Road in Middlesex, where the bodies of Irish immigrants who died of typhoid are interred. In Middlesex village there is a 250-grave site just off Gallagher Road called the Middlesex Village Cemetery, which was established in 1801.

Other nearby communities with several recognized cemeteries include Berlin (10), Barre (10), Calais (12), and East Montpelier (18). Worcester only has two: Worcester Mountain Cemetery and Worcester Village Cemetery. They are connected and located just north of the village on Route 12.

These facts come from the Vermont Old Cemetery Association website, which cites a number of cemeteries that lack location coordinates and an unnamed and abandoned cemetery of 10 to 15 gravesites in Calais.

Hope Cemetery in Barre, Berlin Corners Cemetery in Berlin, and Montpelier’s Green Mount are the largest in Central Vermont, each with thousands of graves. Another favorite of mine is Black Cemetery in Berlin. It dates back to 1810 and contains 120 graves, but is in poor condition.

Why visit cemeteries? According to writer Alice Levitt, “The world is a cemetery.” She describes Hope Cemetery as a “museum … lusty and continental,” and Montpelier’s Green Mount as the “dark horse of Vermont’s mega-cemeteries.” Green Mount is built on an angle with an “English feel.” Hope Cemetery is a fitting tribute to the stonecutters and artisans who are interred there, with many monuments of their own creation and located in the “Granite Capital of the World.” Also notable are the stones and monuments, such as a basketball, which preserve the hobbies, interests and stories of the deceased. Green Mount includes plots for family pets, cremated remains, mausoleums and private woodlots. If you haven’t seen the memorial to “Ned the Dog,” search it out. It enshrines the decedent’s beloved and trusty spaniel.

Speaking of pet burials, many of us have pet cemeteries in our fields or backyards. Mine includes the remains of my beloved cats Bunky, Maxi, Gwinny and Mitzi, and also Juju Emery and ashes of my soulmate dog, Smoochie. It soothes me to have them close and in view of my kitchen window.

Hope Cemetery and Green Mount are identified as two of the 15 Vermont cemeteries that “give goose bumps” and can be “creepy to wander in.” (From an article by freelance writer Kristin Grimes written for Biggam, Fox & Skinner.) Hope can be haunting, given its cemetery art and symbolism. At Green Mount, legend has it something very bad will happen to anyone who sits in the lap of the statue of Black Agnes. Black Agnes was constructed in 1897. The large statue is titled “Thanatos,” which means “death” in Greek and is the grave of Jonathan Erastus Hubbard. The stories of what will happen if you sit on Agnes’s “killing” lap vary, but none has a good result.

Cemeteries are sacred. When Tropical Storm Irene hit and washed out the Woodlawn Cemetery in Rochester, carrying caskets and old bones dating back into the 1800s down the river, there was a cross reaction between science fiction curiosity, morbidness and pain. Serious effort went into recovering the scattered remains, including identifying them and attempting to return them to their resting sites. The remains of one woman’s grandmother were found five miles down the river at a golf course. Many remains were never found or identified, leaving survivors without closure.

Cemeteries offer us a myriad of emotions and experiences, even if you don’t believe in burial. Whether you go to visit a loved one, study the history captured by the monuments, or simply take in the spirituality of the place, they are places of fascination. Cemeteries can be beautiful meditative venues as well as rich sources of architecture, history and genealogy. We are blessed in Vermont to have such places for personal reflection and memorialization.

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