There were unexpected signs of life Saturday morning at the Eastern Cemetery in Portland.

A conservation crew consisting of three women dug a hole to reset a footstone long separated from its original plot. Visitors strolled between the marble and slate gravestones, and a man with a weathered face sprawled on the grass snoring, oblivious to the small tour group making its way slowly around the Colonial-era burial ground.

The graveyard, at the base of Munjoy Hill, is marking its 350th anniversary this year. Spirits Alive, a nonprofit group formed 11 years ago to help preserve the site, offers tours four days a week and will sponsor three open house events to celebrate the anniversary this summer.

On Saturday, a small but enthusiastic group stuck close to docent Dave Smith of Portland as he gave them an inside look at the historic burial grounds.

“You are standing in Portland’s oldest historic site,” Smith said.

Lisa Nanny, who grew up in Maine but now lives in Corsicana, Texas, said the tour was one of the highlights of her trip.

“I have just always been fascinated by cemeteries,” she said.

Her friend Dorinda Jewett of Saco said she is a cemetery enthusiast, too.

“I like to check out the Laurel Hill Cemetery,” she said of the Saco burial ground inspired by Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Dick Enright, a Skowhegan resident who drives down regularly to sample Portland’s restaurant scene, said he wanted to learn something new.

“And I have seen the signs for the tour, so I came,” Enright said.

The cemetery served as a burial place for the first European settlers who arrived in the Portland area in 1632. But the site wasn’t established as a public burial ground until 1668. For the next 200 years it became the final resting spot for about 7,000 people, many of them in unmarked graves. The cemetery ran out of room for more burials in about 1860. Today there are about 3,500 stones, 400 of which have been preserved by Spirits Alive.

There are 95 underground tombs built to hold up to 30 coffins each. The Dead House, which sits inside the front gate, was originally a tomb used to store bodies in the winter when the ground was frozen. Today it serves as a toolshed.

The cemetery has 12 sections, including special areas for Quakers, Catholics and blacks.

Notable stones include a monument to Lt. Henry Wadsworth – uncle and namesake of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – who was killed in 1804 at age 20 while trying to blow up a pirate ship off the Barbary Coast. Efforts to return his remains from an unkempt grave in Tripoli have been unsuccessful.

A visit to the grave of Mary Green was another stop on Smith’s tour.

Green was probably one of the settlers driven from the area by American Indians between 1689 and 1690 and who returned 20 years later. Her carved slate gravestone, marking her death in 1717, was most likely made in Boston and shipped to Portland. It is the oldest surviving stone in the cemetery.

The James Alden Monument, a tribute to the Portland native and Navy rear admiral, is the tallest and most ornate stone in the cemetery. Alden served in the Civil War.

Smith pointed to a spot where a gallows, the scene of at least one hanging, and stocks once stood. He noted that vandalism at the cemetery had been a problem in the early 1800s. He pointed out the word “relict” on a gravestone, an archaic word for a widow.

Smith’s easygoing lecture style inspired many questions and observations from his audience.

“Have you thought of what you want on your gravestone?” Enright asked the group.

“I think about it often,” Nanny said.

The cemetery is free and open through the fall. The gates are locked at night.

The hourlong tours – at 11 a.m. Saturdays, Wednesdays and Sundays and 5:30 p.m. Thursdays – cost $10 for ages 12 and up. Seniors and students are $5. Proceeds go to stone restoration.

Special events for the 350th anniversary include a tour of the graves of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s relatives from 1 to 5 p.m. on July 21; the anniversary of the burial in 1846 of Capt. Lemuel Moody, creator of the Portland Observatory, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Aug. 12; and a demonstration of slate carving by Peaks Island stonecutter Matt Barnes from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sept. 15.

Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: bquimby

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