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Who goes there?

Where lives are remembered, and deaths

Email|Print| Text size + By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / October 26, 2003

FRANKLIN COUNTY -- Remember death. That was the Puritans' message to anyone who passed a burial ground in Colonial New England. The motto sent a shudder through those whose religion told them their salvation would remain an open question until the moment of death.

Old gravestones still call out a reminder of life's fleeting passage, especially now, when that primal message resonates with the season's shift toward winter, marked by Halloween. The ancient Celtic year began on Nov. 1, and on the night before, the Celts believed that all who had died during the year would pass to their ultimate destination on ''the other side." So while children today dress up and gather candy door to door, the Celts once feasted on the fruits of the harvest, wearing masks so their dead relatives would not follow them home.

Some might call it morbid, but those of us who savor the art and symbolism of cemeteries cannot think of a better time to wander the back roads in search of preserved burial grounds. Not only is our fascination with graveyards in tune with the season, but autumn light and foliage create a spellbinding setting for weathered slate and marble.

Following is a brief, highly subjective guide to some 18th- and early 19-century graveyards tucked along the back roads of western Franklin County. Those familiar with the area know that dozens more old cemeteries dot this area; proximity to a village center, passable roads, and roadside parking guided our choices.

Center Cemetery, Shelburne Center Road, Shelburne. Stone walls bound this small rectangle of grass -- an acre, if that -- studded with marble markers. Though records date the earliest burial to 1774, most of the stones here span the period from the 1830s to the 1920s. Like many rural pre-Revolutionary burial grounds, this one may have originated as a family plot shared by neighboring settlers.

Vase-shaped panicle hydrangea, perhaps 50 years old, are the only plantings inside the walls. Early American burial landscapes reflected the Puritan desire to make them functional and secular, not grounds for the display of worldly aggrandizement. Plantings to ornament graveyards did not become common until Mount Auburn in Cambridge, the country's first ''garden cemetery," started the trend in the 1830s.

Meanwhile, graveyards often doubled as grazing areas for neighboring cattle. Granite hitching posts lean against the stone retaining wall to the right of the entrance. Beware: Poison ivy grows abundantly beside the road.

Hill Cemetery, Old Village Road, Shelburne. A sign at the entrance says this burial ground was established in 1769, a year after settlers formed the district of Shelburne. This hilltop pasture of about three acres is lined with old pines and contains at least 100 graves. Slates cluster in the center, some rounded on top -- for Puritans, the shape of the portal of death.

A few markers, such as the 1781 stone of Samuel Fellows, bear carvings of the winged death's head, the dominant Colonial motif until it morphed into a more beatific image of a winged face (some scholars call it the ''soul-effigy") in the 1740s. Many more of the slates here are decorated with the urn and willow, post-Revolutionary symbols of mourning.

A few marble stones are tucked among the slates. Slate was the Colonial gravestone of choice in the region, largely because it was cheaper and more available until the 1780s, when white marble began to be quarried in Vermont and shipped all over the country. It quickly replaced slate as the favorite material for gravestones because it was easier to carve and its gleaming whiteness was more in tune with the new, more optimistic theology of death.

South Shelburne Cemetery, South Shelburne Road, Shelburne. This cemetery, founded in 1813, occupies a slightly rolling patch of grass no more than a few acres in size, containing several dozen graves. Except for a handful of slates, most of the markers here are marble, arranged in tidy rows. Few plantings interrupt the austere order of the stones. A new white wooden fence is bolted to older granite posts. Horses flick their tails in adjacent fields.

Arms Cemetery, off Route 2 (at blinking light east of the bridge over the Deerfield River), Shelburne Falls. Founded in 1854, this beautifully planted hilltop, threaded with curving roads and paths, is an example of the trend begun at Mount Auburn. This kind of burial landscape, also called the ''rural cemetery," was literally a garden of graves designed to invite the living to reflect on the tranquil afterlife that greeted their lost loved ones.

These peaceful landscapes were loaded with enough symbolism to make the average person's head spin, yet they became so popular as places to stroll and picnic that they inspired the parks movement later in the century. Picturesque, privately owned, and located outside city limits, these cemeteries were the first to adopt deliberate planting schemes and other ornamental features, such as fountains and ponds. Nature, long banned from cemeteries as a relic of pagan wilderness, became a civilizing influence in the eyes of the Romantics.

A three-tiered cast-iron fountain anchors the center of the Arms Cemetery, which features ornate monuments that reveal another shift in American attitudes about death. Obelisks and squat decorative markers replaced plain slender slabs. The new imagery included elaborate sculptures of draped urns and cutoff columns (signifying a life cut short), and there are plenty of these on this level hilltop ringed by mountains. The symbolism does not end with personal tributes; civic-mindedness also bursts through in classical forms that invoke the democracy of ancient Greece. The Arms Cemetery's peaceful inner drive encompasses almost every element of the rural cemetery style. Contemporary granite markers are mixed in, mostly on the edges of the center.

Howland Cemetery, Shelburne Falls Road, Conway. This 18th-century burial ground rises on a steep hill from the road. Old white pines, some several feet thick, tower over the oldest graves, giving the place a strong New England character. The markers are mostly slates, many with draped-urn and urn-and-willow carvings, and worn and broken stones poke up among the pine roots. Some marble slabs and obelisks from the mid-1900s, many covered in lichens, also stud the hillside.

South Centre/Pumpkin Hollow Cemetery, Maple Street and Old Cricket Hill Road, Conway. This fenced square of pasture shaded by sugar maples contains graves dating from 1772, mostly slates, and is easy to miss. Farms still border the site, which probably started out as a family plot. The slender triangular green across the street once marked the center of town, which shifted closer to the South River and what is now Route 116 during the industrial period.

Pine Grove Cemetery, Reeds Bridge Road (continuation of Elm Street), Conway. Established in 1845, this cultivated spot seems a bit gussied up for this back road deep in the country. Like the Arms Cemetery in Shelburne Falls, it is laid out and planted in the rural cemetery style, complete with a graceful semicircle of panicle hydrangeas near the entrance. Chipmunks scamper everywhere, gathering acorns under the old oaks. Pine, spruce, and sugar maples also pepper the landscape. Although the site has no fountain or pool, fine examples of fenced and curb-edged family plots -- a fleeting fad within the rural cemetery style -- can be found here.

Ashfield Plain Cemetery, Baptist Corner Road, Ashfield. This spreading tract -- perhaps five acres -- lies just a city block or so from the center of town. Founded in 1767, this old plot contains slates, marbles, and newer granite markers arrayed on a gentle slope. A gravel track winds around the edge, and the oldest stones are concentrated in the back of the lot, farthest from the main road. Wild turkeys ramble about the adjacent field, separated from the burial ground by a stone wall. Though large pines and sugar maples create mossy shade these days, this place feels like a former pasture set aside for burial. Mushrooms pop up among the pine needles -- an evocative place.

Steady Lane/Hill Cemetery, Norton Hill Road, Ashfield. A stone wall faces the road and continues around the edges of this long wedge of green, three or four acres in size. Dating from 1813, this cemetery is dominated by rows of white marble, mostly the simple slabs that predated the rural cemetery style, with a few obelisks interspersed among them. A partial row of slate markers displays some particularly exuberant urn carvings made for the Stocking family during the first quarter of the 19th century.

Jane Roy Brown is co-editor of AMC Outdoors.

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