Inspiration Among the Gravestones

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.

Ventry gravemarker 1

Old grave marker in the Ventry Burying Ground, County Kerry, Ireland

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.

We quickly realized it was important to heed this warning.

Michael was likely a cousin of my grandmother, from the side of the family that stayed in Ireland when she and her siblings immigrated to the US around the turn of the century.

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.”

If you’ve never strolled through Evergreen, I recommend a springtime visit to this serene, historic place.

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:

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.”

Laurel hill river view

Laurel Hill Cemetery sits on a bluff above the Saco River.

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.

Daffodils at Laurel Hill

Thousands of daffodils are an intentional part of the architectural landscape at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

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.

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13 Responses to Inspiration Among the Gravestones

  1. bethc2015 says:

    I enjoy looking at the names on the stones – some that are rarely seen any more. Our daughter learned her letters and how to walk safely in the Veterans cemetery. We lived on a busy road. so that brought some peace and solitude. Since my husband is a “4th,” it was freaky to see his name on three gravestones in his grandparent’s ancestral home.

    • I agree, Beth! The old names are wonderful. It must have been unnerving to see John’s name chiseled in stone.

      My mother had her own name added to the stone when my father died. His name was accompanied by his date of birth on the left and date of death on the right. Her date of birth was next to her name on the left and the stonemason left the right side blank. In the 25 years between his death and hers, it never seemed to bother her to see this. In fact, I think she found it comforting.

  2. bereksennebec says:

    We have one diagonally across the road. I like the peacefulness, especially at sunset and right after and the river runs behind it. Nothing like the cry of a loon while strolling through the tombstones.

  3. Charlene Fox Clemons says:

    Seaside Cemetery in Blue Hill, ME where I spent many afternoons as a child, often having a small picnic lunch with my aunt. On Blue Hill Bay, the cemetery is not only picturesque, but you can follow the history of the families and the town walking through the lanes and reading the stones. So peaceful! Other cemeteries include Ledgelawn in Bar Harbor…beautifully maintained and out of the hustle and bustle of the tourists, Woodbine in Ellsworth…also beautifully maintained…with an old section and a newer section on the hill. Pine Grove in Bangor has beautiful old growth trees and amazing stones.

  4. Lea Wait says:

    I love visiting old graveyards ! Since my historical novels set in Wiscasset include many real people .. I’ve been known to talk to them at their graves. (Not loudly, and not when others are around!) I apologize to them for anything they wouldn’t have liked … and hope they don’t mind that I’ve “brought them to life” again. Once when I was visiting them a man cleaning the graveyard told me a few stories about people there that might someday end up in a book …

    • I knew I could count on you to have done active research in your local cemeteries, Lea. Your historical novels evidence such respect for the real-life people among your casts of characters.

  5. Pingback: Inspiration Among the Gravestones — Maine Crime Writers – Three Rivers Novelties

  6. David Plimpton says:

    The small Bay View Cemetery, located between Parrott and Sawyer Streets in South Portland, that I walk through regularly, slowing down to regard some of both old and new headstones with which I’ve become familiar, sometimes imagining little stories about the former lives of the occupants.

    I used to visit the beautiful Hingham Cemetary in Hingham Massachusetts, where my father’s family lived for many years, The graveyard was situated on a hill which then overlooked Hingham Bay, part of Massachusetts Bay, Once, on a walk with my father and uncle, my uncle proudly showed us his plot. He said this would assure he always had a water view.

    Sure enough, this story was repeated at his funeral.

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