It is a privilege to be the keeper of a historic, quaint cemetery in my small Maine town—a magical place hidden within the forest, accessible by an old wagon trail. The hallowed ground is natural and wild, covered in varieties of spongy moss, wild violets, maiden pinks, white yarrow, pine straw, and crisp fallen leaves. The space is tenderly enveloped by towering oak, white pine, and hemlock trees that come together at their tops to form a protective arch above the stones. The air has an earthy, woodsy, slightly sweet smell that blends naturally and seamlessly with the tendrils of memory upon the wind.
Our town has more than seventy historic cemeteries. Some of them very small, with only a few graves, while others are much larger, like the one for which I am keeper.
I’ll never forget the day I first approached it. Someone had told me about this place of beauty, and I knew I had to find it. My eye was drawn to a tiny fragment of stone peeking through fallen leaves, just at the entrance to the graveyard. When I gently brushed away the leaves, a broken plaque emerged, revealing a single name upon the stone. It was my name: Susan. You can well imagine my surprise. I fell in love, and I knew I was meant to be the keeper of this special cemetery, taking care of the stones and the sacred space. I contacted the town’s cemetery committee. There were two volunteer keepers at that time, neither of whom had the time, energy, or interest to invest in it, so I was appointed in their place. Everyone (spirits included) was very happy.
In this role, I am essentially a groundskeeper. I pick up fallen debris from trees, pull weeds and saplings from around the stones, and plant traditional foliage to keep erosion at bay. I’m also record keeper, keeping note of the stones and their conditions, the dead tree limbs that may fall and need attention, and stones that need repair or resetting.
Most of my work is done in the spring and fall. I visit this enchanting, sacred place pretty regularly throughout the year, not only to lovingly tend to the gravestones and grounds, but to find peace and quiet in the stillness, connect with nature and those who came before, and spend time with my thoughts. The majority of my job involves cleaning the headstones, nearly 100 of them, from the simply crafted ones made of slate, marble, and granite to the more natural rock monuments and the fancier memorial stones painstakingly designed in a gothic style. I was trained in a gentle, internationally used technique for cleaning by a member of the committee, who was trained by the Maine Old Cemetery Association, in Augusta, our state capital.
I suspect I am not alone when it comes to enjoying time in inviting, old cemeteries. I imagine that you, dear reader, might be able to relate. I sometimes bring along a sprig of rosemary for remembrance, to honor the dead. I notice the names particular to an earlier age, beautiful old first names like Bainbridge, Desiah, Content, and Love.
I also like to bring along poetry from that era, the 18th and 19th centuries, to read among the graves. Maybe these townspeople of long ago read some of this very same literature, much of it on themes of death. So often they would have been surrounded by death; the death culture and etiquette makes this plain. I imagine the family and friends of the deceased would have turned to poetry as an outlet for their grief and to attempt to find solace. Some of it, no doubt, was read in the cemetery, as I do now.
Have you ever heard of the Graveyard Poets? Also referred to as the Churchyard Poets, these 18th-century British writers were known for their explorations of the fleeting nature of life, death, bereavement, and the afterlife. They were not afraid to embrace the darker side of death, as their poems were filled with gloomy imagery, elaborate descriptions of graveyards, skulls, bones, and other macabre fascinations. This made them precursors to the gothic novelists who would come in their wake. Some of their works were written as personal elegies for the deceased, while others reflected about death’s impact more generally.
Here is an excerpt from noted Graveyard Poet Thomas Parnell’s well-known poem “A Night-Piece on Death”:
Those graves, with bending osier bound,
That nameless heave the crumpled ground,
Quick to the glancing thought disclose
Where Toil and Poverty repose.
The flat smooth stones that bear a name,
The chisel’s slender help to fame
(Which ere our set of friends decay
Their frequent steps may wear away),
A middle race of mortals own,
Men, half ambitious, all unknown.
Other Graveyard Poets of note include Robert Blair, Edward Young, and Thomas Gray. If you fancy spending quiet alone time within the walls of a historic and peaceful cemetery among the beautiful old stones and epitaphs, I invite you to bring along a book of poetry written by a Graveyard Poet to inspire you and help you connect with the past, to honor and understand those who came before.
Death is a natural part of the life cycle—of birth, death, and rebirth. There cannot be life without death, light without the darkness, nor joy without sadness. The Graveyard Poets and the later gothic writers embraced this sentiment. I am reminded by poignant lines that death is not really an ending but a beginning and that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead are blurred. As Edgar Allan Poe so aptly puts it in “The Premature Burial”: “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and the other begins?”