Old cemeteries. Abundant in the Upper Valley and full of stories of so long ago that one is able only to guess about them. The School Street Cemetery, also known as the Village Cemetery, in Lebanon NH, is bigger than it first appears once you commit to walking through it. And older than old; some of the gravestones and markers are no longer at all legible.
The state of some of the stones is sad. One after another has fallen (literally) to the elements (understandable) or to vandalism (incomprehensible). Casual research shows that vandalism in cemeteries is common and everywhere. Apparently vandals are looking to damage and destroy something, anything, and cemeteries--often somewhat isolated, empty, and with little or no security--are easy targets. Please, whoever you are, just stop it.
Lebanon's Department of Public Works acknowledges that vandalism is a problem at the School Street Cemetery, and says they try to right stones that have been pushed over. The Lebanon police have prosecuted vandals when they could, obtaining restitution in some cases that has gone toward restoration of the damage. As for those precious markers that have succumbed to age and now lie in pieces, the town does not fix them. They are the responsibility of the owner of the individual lot; after so many years, families of the lot owners may themselves have died or moved from the area. Makes me want to adopt a gravestone, or urge Boy or Girl Scout-type groups to take these poor stones on as a public service project. It's complicated. Apparently, restoring old gravestones, even if one wants to do so--and some don't--is at best an imprecise art.
Detail of one of the beautiful monuments at the School Street Cemetery
If you can tamp down your anger at the intentional damage, and melancholy at the unintentional kind, there's beauty to be found. Some of the monuments have endured, with artful detail. There is history, flags decorating the grave of every slain soldier, even those that require an on-hands-and knees inspection of the marker to determine the deceased's military connection. Men are most often called only by their names, maybe with a professional or military title; the women beside them are always "wife of." (Still looking for a gravestone in which the reverse would occur--woman with no identification of relationship and man would be indicated as "husband of.") And no, it seems not to have mattered who died first. The biggest surprise is how many men and women lived to ripe old ages, long past what would have been the life expectancy of their time.
Causes of death are sometimes listed (see above), which seems a custom of bygone times, as are the maladies themselves. And the given names! The expected, like Ebenezer and Elijah, but others: Eliphalet, Sophronia, Ziba, Zalmon, and Zurviah. One I have never forgotten since I first encountered it a decade or more ago is that of a wife and mother whose first name is Submit. Quick Googling showed that Submit was not so unusual; I even found mention of a mother and daughter who shared the name. This Submit of Lebanon, née Ilehard, was the wife of Arnold Porter. At least two of their children predeceased her and are buried in the School Street Cemetery: a daughter, Laura, age 6, and a son, William, age 20. (Lebanon families and historians: if you have any information about Submit Porter and are willing to share, please contact me. I would like to know more.)
There are resources to help uncover some of the cemetery's mysteries. Frances L. Hanchett has catalogued every stone and marker as of 2012. Lebanon's Department of Public Works will help people with genealogical research with a database designed specifically for cemetery records. And while there is no program for adopting an existing gravestone, "Adopt A Civil War Veteran" is a project that seeks to provide needed headstones for soldiers of the Civil War who are buried in Lebanon NH cemeteries.
Moving from the ancient to the very young. . .I found it heartwarming and fitting that the next door neighbor to the School Street Cemetery is the Montessori Discovery School, whose schoolyard was as colorful as the cemetery was gray-upon-green, as noisy as the cemetery was silent.
The neighboring schoolyard in uncharacteristic repose.
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