Do you enjoy a good tromp around a cemetery – looking at the headstones and wondering about the lingering stories? As a family historian and genealogist, you know the value of cemetery research to mine names and dates, but have you explored the symbols often engraved on a headstone? Those can hint at stories to be uncovered.
In this guest post, genealogist Lynn Blair shares her photos and passion for discovering the stories found in New England’s cemeteries. I met Lynn while I mentored ProGen 44, a 14-month study group. When she shared her hobby, I knew I wanted to know more. Enjoy the photos and stories and think of what you could discover on your next trip to the cemetery. – Diana
By Lynn Blair
Growing up, I’d always enjoyed history. My interests ranged from Ancient Egypt to Tudor England. I majored in English in college and then went on to receive my Master’s in Library Science. Working in libraries, I discovered the wealth of historical documents and materials they had. My interest finally looped around to genealogy. I’ve been studying genealogy for almost four years and have worked on several projects for my family. I enjoy the historical records, combing through old paperwork and internet databases, examining old photographs, but the one aspect of genealogy that has captured my interest the most is cemetery research.
I will always continue to work on genealogy projects, but my one true calling is cemeteries. When I was younger, I’d go with my parents while they watered flowers at the family plots. I remember walking around and exploring, reading names and dates, and wondering about these individuals’ lives. Cemeteries have always been a peaceful place to me. Now, as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate the beauty in cemeteries. There is so much to discover- not only in the stories of those that have come before but in the gravestone artwork itself. The symbology and artistry is something I’ve come to love and appreciate.
Discovering the Stories
There is nothing like being able to stand at an ancestor’s gravesite. One of the stories that has consistently touched my heart is Ellen French (married- Wade). I discovered her by chance when I was looking at a marriage record of my great-great-great-grandfather, Daniel Wade. It noted that his marriage to Susan Cook was his second marriage. I wanted to discover what happened to his first wife…and I found Ellen. Ellen was born Ellen Maria French in 1849. She married Daniel C. Wade on 24 November 1864. Ellen died 1 day short of her anniversary on 23 November 1865. Ellen and Daniel’s son Elbridge was born on 9 November 1865. She only had 2 weeks with her son before she passed away, likely from a complication of childbirth. Daniel went on to marry Susan Cook. Their first daughter, born 1 December 1867, was named Ellen Maria Wade, after his first wife. Ellen (French) Wade’s story has stuck with me long since I discovered it.
I feel like Ellen’s story has been lost to time, which is why I do what I do and why I love it so much. I don’t know how long it’s been since a descendent of hers has stood in front of her gravesite. Although we aren’t related by blood, I feel a strong connection to Ellen and the desire to tell her story.
Often, visiting a cemetery can lead to other adventures. A trip to the Old Deerfield Cemetery in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in the fall of 2020 brought me to Eunice Williams’s gravesite. Along with her family, Eunice was captured in the French and Native American raid on the Deerfield settlement on 29 February 1704. Eunice was already in a weakened state, having just given birth (stories vary on the timeline- some say she had given birth a month or even days before). The captives were made to walk to Canada. Anyone who knows New England in February knows it can be a brutal time. Eunice was not able to make the trek and was struck down.
After reading about her story, I knew I had to visit the place where she died. About a half hour’s drive away from the cemetery in Greenfield, Massachusetts is the Eunice Williams’ covered bridge (which is reported to be haunted by Eunice, but that’s another tale).
Gravestone style, artwork, and symbology have changed over the years as various generations have different views of death. Lambs can often be found on the gravestones of children and infants. This sweet little lamb has intrigued me for many years. There is no name, no date. I hope to discover more about this little lamb that sits alone in a wide patch of the Village Hill Cemetery in Williamsburg, MA. I find the open space around the lamb unusual. There are no other open spaces like this in the cemetery (other than parts of the cemetery that are actively in use). While there could be unmarked burials, I feel there is a story here.
The image below was taken from the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts, and features two examples of earlier gravestone artwork. The death’s head on the right is common in older burying grounds. As time passed, a more sentimental view of death became common, and images like the angel on the left began to appear.
This stone in the Old Cemetery in Southwick, Massachusetts, features a weeping willow that can represent sadness and grief and be a symbol of immortality.
My wider research on discovering how gravestone artwork has evolved has branched into other areas of interest. My current area of investigation is post mortem photography and the culture of death. I’m particularly interested in how the culture and attitude towards death have shifted through the years. I plan to discuss my findings by updating my Facebook page, Memento Mori Genealogy, so if you’re interested, I welcome you to follow along!
Tips for Cemetery Research
In short, I love sharing my experiences and travels with others in the field or those who are curious…and I love hearing your stories! I encourage you to research your local cemeteries and pay a visit- you never know what you’ll find. I recommend bringing a camera, notebook, and pencil, a mirror (reflecting sunlight makes it easier to read stones if they are in shadow) and, always, bring a partner. Don’t go alone. The ground can shift, snakes can lurk in tall grasses, stones can be unsteady. As when exploring anywhere- it’s best to be safe. My poor husband has been dragged through too many cemeteries to count. He has become an unwitting explorer alongside me. Go prepared, ready to learn and discover something new. Trust me- it will be more than worth your time.
If there is one statement that sums up all that I’ve said here, I hope it’s this- embrace your passion, no matter how eccentric. History is fascinating, and there is still so much to be discovered. There are people that need remembering and stories that need to be told.
Lynn Blair lives in Massachusetts and spends her days as a librarian and her nights as a hobby genealogist/history nerd/book fiend. Lynn enjoys traveling throughout New England and photographing cemeteries as well as researching the history and folklore of the New England area (and visiting some rumored to be haunted spots). Follow her on Facebook and Instagram by searching for Memento Mori Genealogy, where she posts updates of her travels and discoveries.