March 11, 2010

History rests peacefully in old Maine cemeteries



click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

There is a family cemetery along the road where I live, a lovely niche in a hillside surrounded by hemlocks, beeches and oaks. A wall of notched granite stones with an iron gate faces the road.

The names here tell the history of this neighborhood: William Stearns, who came here in 1792, his wife, Mary, and their nine children. Dudley is a common name in this cemetery, too. Jim Dudley had a large farm in the neighborhood; old-timers here remember his impressive group of farm buildings, since burned.

Hundreds of family cemeteries dot the waysides and secondary roadsides of Maine, and they offer a fascinating look at local history and culture. The graves won't tell the personal stories of the individuals buried here, but collectively, these cemeteries provide a timeline from which we can piece the story of the early settlers, many of whom came after the Revolutionary War, whose sons farmed, whose daughters married, whose grandsons fought in the Civil War, whose children often died way too young.

There are family burial plots with a handful of simple stones, town cemeteries under sweeping maples with lilacs scenting the air, ''rural'' cemeteries designed as places of restive beauty. There are cemeteries that commemorate a particular family or conflict or immigrant group. West Paris has a Finnish cemetery. South Portland has a Jewish cemetery. Some are formal and large, others are personal and poignant.

As the populations of cities grew from early settlement days, the custom of burying the dead in grounds connected to churchyards became less and less workable. People began to recognize the need for burial grounds on the outskirts of urban areas. Usually they were enclosed and planted with trees to create a special, restive atmosphere.


The oldest public cemetery in Portland, Eastern Cemetery provides a timeline of 350 years of Portland's history. The site, overlooking Casco Bay, dates from 1668. It is believed that George Cleeve, Portland's first settler, is buried here. There are 92 large underground brick-lined family tombs, some branching into small rooms. They lie under tabletop graves, raised above the ground.

According to Christina White, executive director of the Freeport Historical Society and a founding member of Spirits Alive, an advocacy group for the cemetery, ''Lots of soldiers are buried in the cemetery from every single conflict (before 1906, when the cemetery was closed). Last year (Spirits Alive) did a tour with a focus on ghosts of the Revolution. We imagined them standing up and telling their stories.''

Two captains who fought against each other in a decisive naval battle in Portland Harbor during the War of 1812 are buried side by side in tabletop graves. The captain of the U.S. Brig Enterprise, William Burroughs, 28, and the captain of the Britannic Majesty's Brig Boxer, Samuel Blyth, 29, were mortally wounded on Sept. 5, 1813, ''after a severe contest of 45 minutes.''

One hopes that they have rested peacefully ever since, although it would be interesting to imagine their ghosts talking to each other.

Although it is a remarkably intact historic landscape, Eastern Cemetery is undergoing landscape restoration. Portland landscape architect Barry Hosmer has completed a master plan, and with the help of city arborist Jeff Tarling, work is proceeding, albeit slowly.

Their work is complemented by that of Spirits Alive. This group also has planted many trees, sponsors regular work days and trains volunteers to trim and clean carefully around the historic stones. Members make sure Portland's historic cemeteries remain on the city's agenda. Check their Web site,, for more information.

''People's memories fade after a couple of generations,'' White says. ''Americans are a forward-moving society, impatient with the past, overcoming immigrant roots. Keeping these historic landscapes intact is challenging and exciting but frustrating. Americans have a 'newer, better, more' perspective. Eastern Cemetery has 6,000 stories. The dead want to be remembered, but we haven't learned to teach history well.''


The ''rural cemetery'' movement began in the 1830s. Rural, or garden, cemeteries were designed as landscapes for the public to enjoy. They were the earliest parks and provided carefully designed open spaces for common folk, not just the wealthy, to use for recreation and leisure.

Rural cemeteries are much closer to the European model, where cemeteries are used as open space and parents bring their children to play, grandparents talk with each other on the granite benches and the living recognize they are a continuum of the deceased.

Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor is the second-oldest rural cemetery in the United States. Land for the cemetery was set aside in 1834. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the cemetery was designed by Charles E. Bryant. The story of this man, the impact of his work in Maine and the beginnings of Mount Hope are documented in a book by Earle Shettleworth, ''The Flight of the Grand Eagle.''

Today Mount Hope Cemetery is 266 acres, 135 of which are developed. The eastern boundary along the Penobscot River is a mile long.

Hannibal Hamlin, the first vice president under Abraham Lincoln, is buried at Mount Hope, along with many other notable and colorful civic and military leaders from northern Maine. They include sculptor and teacher Charles E. Tefft, whose bronze sculpture of three loggers graces the Bangor Public Library, and Sam Veazie, who was a lumber baron owning 80 sawmills, a Bangor bank and vast acreages of real estate and timberlands.

One of the worst disasters in recent times to befall the Mount Hope Cemetery was the loss of more than 700 elm trees in the 1970s to Dutch elm disease. Anyone who has seen these magnificent trees will understand this tremendous loss. Although other species of trees have been replanted, including many sugar maples, the stately elms can never be replaced.

The cemetery turns 175 this year -- the 200th since Hamlin's death. On July 11, there will be a rededication of the original Civil War monument, which was erected in the cemetery in 1864 before the war was even over.

Shettleworth, director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, will speak, Dana Lippit, the curator of the Bangor Museum will give a tour, the Bangor Band (150 years old this year) will play and the Sons of Union Veterans will demonstrate heavy artillery. For more information on the events planned, check out the cemetery's Web site,


For those who are interested in old cemeteries, check out the work of the Maine Old Cemetery Association at The mission of the group is to locate old cemeteries in Maine, gather and preserve historical information about them and advocate for their preservation. The group runs the Maine Inscription Project, with the goal of transcribing all of the old cemeteries in the state.

Cemeteries contain history that can be appreciated and interpreted in many ways. You can focus on a particular war, for example, or a particular family or farm or town or ethnic group. You can study the artwork on the stones, the engraving or the epitaphs. You can look at a particular artist. Cemeteries tell a lot about how settlements expanded. Each is a reminder that as life goes on, we carry traditions of people, cultures, settlements and events.

More than anything, cemeteries are historic landscapes worthy of preservation and our thoughtful reflection.

Ellen Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Norway.

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)