Looking after Sleepy Hollow turns into lifetime career
Casting about for a summer job as a 17-year-old high school student, Tish Hopkins began mowing lawns at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in her hometown of Concord.
She loved working outside and admired the camaraderie among the town’s public works employees. Her father, uncle, and cousin also worked for Concord, so she asked her father to see whether the town could use her. He found her a spot.
Twenty-four years later, she is still there, still loving it.
“I had never mowed a lawn before,’’ said Hopkins, who has long served as cemetery supervisor.
“I had no plans, no idea what I wanted to do. I thought I’d stay for a year.’’
The best known and largest of Concord’s three town-owned burial grounds, Sleepy Hollow on Bedford Street is rich in history and a tourist magnet.
The final resting place of renowned authors including Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, the cemetery spreads across more than 50 acres near the center of town.
Hopkins occasionally finds tourists at Sleepy Hollow who are lost and need directions to a particular historic grave, and she finds quite a few people tracing their genealogies.
“They will flag me down, or if they look confused, I will help,’’ she said. “But usually they want to be left alone.’’
Opening in 1855, Sleepy Hollow was one of the nation’s first so-called garden cemeteries, designed with sweeping hills and roads.
One of the goals was “to have a place that was nice for the living and the dead,’’ said Hopkins. In the 19th century, it was a place for Sunday picnicking and socializing.
“Women of the day had ‘tree bees,’ where they would raise money and plant trees in the spring,’’ Hopkins said. “It was a meeting place.”
Sleepy Hollow even earned the nickname “America’s Westminster Abbey’’ because of all the luminaries buried there, according to Leslie Perrin Wilson, curator of special collections at the Concord Free Public Library. Emerson spoke at the consecration ceremony.
In addition to “Author’s Ridge,’’ where Concord’s literary greats are buried, the cemetery is home to the Melvin Memorial, sculpted by Daniel Chester French in honor of three brothers who died in the Civil War. French, who also created the Minute Man statue at Concord’s North Bridge and the Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., is also buried at Sleepy Hollow.
Yet despite its place in history, Sleepy Hollow is very much a working cemetery. Hopkins said there is enough space for new graves “for the next 50 to 100 years.’’ The town’s other two cemeteries, Old Hill Burying Ground and South Burying Place, are no longer accepting new burials. Hopkins supervises them as well.
It used to be that only people residing in Concord at the time of their deaths could be buried at Sleepy Hollow, but a Town Meeting vote about five years ago allows Hopkins to sell to those who lived in town at any point for at least a year.
She said 80 to 90 percent of plots are sold before a grave is needed. She encourages residents to plan ahead. “You know it’s coming,’’ she said.
After her first summer job, Hopkins was hired as a laborer at the cemetery. She mowed between the headstones, raked leaves, and dug graves.
“No one ever said I couldn’t do this because I was a girl,’’ she said.
She became cemetery supervisor at 18, when her boss in the two-person department left. It’s still a two-person operation. She still uses the same 28-inch self-propelled mowers, kept in a barn next to her office at Sleepy Hollow Knoll, the newer portion of the cemetery.
And records are still kept on paper in thick spiral notebooks that Hopkins uses to record burial sites, one page per family, with numbered graves outlined on a chart.
Hopkins loves being outdoors, clearly preferring a sweatshirt and jeans over a power suit. “I like physical work too, and it was an opportunity to work for the town. The people are so great here.’’
Each day she wields a rake or drives a backhoe. She also helps town crews clear roads during a storm.
She likes being able to help people “when they need it, in a specific way,’’ Hopkins said. “We try to make it an easier time, or in some way not as difficult.’’
The cemetery operation has a backhoe for digging graves, although cremation has grown in popularity. All grave sites are first lined by a cement vault before the casket or urn is interred.
Hopkins said there are no regulations covering caskets. They can be composed of any material, and machine- or handmade. Concord does not have a “green’’ section where people are buried in shrouds alone, although one can “pour cremated remains into the earth without an urn,’’ she said.
The cemetery workers dig graves, then cover the caskets with loam and grass seed, and whatever flowers are left from the funeral. “Plantings are done by the family,’’ said Hopkins. Monument companies handle the headstones, and another company handles the vaults.
“There are a lot of facets to the job,’’ she said. But she has them down pat by now, and has no plans to change. “I couldn’t stand being inside all day, and I love interacting with families,’’ she said.
Although she prefers about 36 hours advance notice to prepare a grave, especially in inclement weather, Hopkins tries to accommodate grieving families. “Sometimes we’ve had to bury people the day they die,’’ she said.
Late fall is one of the busiest times for Hopkins because the leaves must be raked or blown before snowfall. Memorial Day, when veterans are honored with flags placed at their graves by the town, is another busy time.
A new wrinkle in management of the cemetery, she said, is neighbors who buy plots together so they can spend eternity as close as they spent their lives in Concord.
“They are living together on the same street, and come in and buy lots to stay together,’’ Hopkins said.
Betsy Levinson can be reached at email@example.com.