Is it just me, or do all mystery writers feel at home in old cemeteries?
The breeze carries stories of those whose names and dates of death are chiseled into marble headstones, tangible markers of the earthly existence of both the long-lived and those who trod this earth only for a few short years.
Flags denote the final resting place of veterans. Flowers grace the graves of those who are gone but certainly are not forgotten. Elaborate tombs sit across narrow roadways from flat-to-the-earth markers.
A good wander through a burial ground fills me to the brim with ideas.
When we were in Ireland two springs ago, we spent a lot of time exploring an old cemetery overlooking the sea in the town where my maternal ancestors once lived. There’s a newer section and an old one, the latter pocked with holes dug by rabbits who energetically co-exist with the dead.
It’s a place where you must watch your step lest you find yourself face down atop an old grave.
My grandmother died in this country. She rests next to my grandfather, my parents and other family members in a much more modern cemetery in Massachusetts. I searched the Ventry graveyard unsuccessfully for stones naming her parents, John and Mary (McKenna) Fenton, but was unable to find them. It may well be that their bodies were interred in a private graveyard a mile up the hill in the townland of Baile an Chotaigh (in English, “Ballincota,” as in the adjacent photo), where the family lived for generations.
I did come upon the grave of Michael and Margaret Fenton who would have been rough contemporaries of my grandmother. He was a cousin, I suspect. How sad they lost a daughter at age three. How interesting that their son – year older than little Marguerita – lived to the age of 83.
In Portland, we like to walk through Evergreen Cemetery on Stevens Avenue. A National Historic Landmark managed by the City, it covers 239 acres and is known for the “diversity of over 40,000 monuments, including large-scale, distinctive pieces of funerary sculpture of high artistic quality,” according to the City’s website. Evergreen was modeled after Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded in 1831 as a “rural cemetery and experimental garden.”
We make early morning visits to Evergreen in early May to witness the warbler migration, which is especially active around the ponds near its back boundary. Maine Audubon leads guided bird walks in this area that are free and open to the public. For more information: https://maineaudubon.coursestorm.com/course/warbler-walks-at-evergreen-cemetery1?page=3
Another historic cemetery we make a point to visit each spring is Laurel Hill in Saco. According to its website, this burial ground was created in 1844 “to replace the town common’s crowded, neglected cemetery.”
Also inspired by Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, the architect “included meandering paths and roads, with deciduous trees and evergreen shrubs punctuating broad expanses of open lawn. Situated on the banks of the Saco River, the cemetery’s lawn areas merge with marsh grasses at the river’s edge. A Queen Anne-style chapel built in 1890 remains in use.”
Like many who have no family buried there, we’re drawn to Laurel Hill in May, when the tens of thousands of daffodils planted over the years are in bloom.
The search for family history, the bird habitat and the floral burst of spring are secondary, though, to the stories embraced in old cemeteries. Lives are summed up in a few short words, offering writers a thousand ideas on which to ruminate.
Readers: Do you visit cemeteries? When and why? What are your favorites?
Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold. These days she’s hard at work on new projects.