An Event of Grave Implications: East Street Cemetery Tour
Tewksbury Historical Society hosts halloween-themed event
Residents of Tewksbury and surrounding towns gathered to tour an unlikely landmark on a damp and chilly Sunday afternoon: the historic sections of Tewksbury's East Street Cemetery.
The Tewksbury Historical Society organized the event in keeping with the Halloween spirit, and to drum up some enthusiasm for history. The tour also served as a small fundraiser for the nonprofit group.
This year was just the first annual tour of the cemetery, and Kim Zunino, a board member of the Tewksbury Historical Society, acted as the cemetery's tour guide.
"We're doing this one today, and hopefully it will be the first of many yearly or maybe seasonal (tours), maybe some in the spring and some in the fall," she said.
The tours of the cemetery began with a first session 'flashlight' tour at 6:00 pm on Saturday night. Because of a mix-up about starting times, tour participants showed up at 7:00 pm as well, and the Historical Society decided to hold an impromptu second tour.
The Historical Society will likely continue the event next year because of a healthy turnout during the tours. The 3:30 pm, Sunday tour had some 25 people in attendance.
Tour guide Zunino began her work in the history of cemeteries when she found an old burial ground on Alcott Street in Belvidere. She joined the Association for Gravestone Studies where she became certified in gravestone restoration.
"When you look at a cemetery, you've got genealogy, you've got anthropology," she said. "If you look at it, it's really an evolution from when they started burying people until now. And it's always changing, too."
The tour stopped first at the Center Burying Ground, the oldest section of the Tewksbury Cemetery.
"We're going to go in chronological order," Zunino said to the tour, "because the best way to look at Tewksbury's history is to start at the beginning."
From then 'til now
The earliest section of the cemetery started as an unofficial burial ground, dating back to before Tewksbury was incorporated in 1734. The settlers originally buried their dead facing west. In keeping with Puritan beliefs, the dead were buried so they would rise to face east during the resurrection.
Traditional burials included both a headstone and a smaller footstone. Footstones have fallen out of favor mostly because they were trip and mowing hazards to those frequenting cemeteries.
The first headstones in the cemetery were carved in slate, a material found abundantly throughout the region and used prolifically. The carvers eventually moved to marble for its beauty.
"Marble wasn't the best choice to use in New England, not that they knew that at the time they put them up," Zunino told the group.
The problem with marble is that it breaks down from acid rain and is easily discolored from pollution and lichen. The most current trend in headstones is granite, which is tougher than marble, holds up well in the region's weather, and sustains a high polish.
A lot of the site's original slate was hauled out and discarded when the cemetery felt the grounds were too cluttered and asked family members to clean up their plots. Family plots began using a single monument with the dates of the family members, and small markers to indicate the resting places of the deceased.
Another burial tradition that has changed over time is the inscriptions and images on gravestones. The earliest headstones in the Center Burial Ground are illustrated with imagery of skulls, or skulls with wings, which signify the awareness of the society at that time with human mortality.
"What they'd do is they'd have things such as skulls or cross bones so that people coming to the graveyard would have it in their minds to be good, because death was coming to them," Zunino explained.
The imagery of death later metamorphosed into simple winged effigies carved in niches upon the stone. Headstone carvings further evolved to include traditional iconography such as Greek urns, columns, emblems of flowers and plants, and other symbolism.
The carvings have been worn down over the years, and preservation of the stones is very difficult. Apart from delicate washing, it is hard to offset the effects of pollution and weather. During the New Deal, the Works Project Administration tried to save marble headstones by capping them in concrete.
"What they didn't understand at the time is that these stones breathe--especially marble--they expand and contract with the weather," Zunino said of the preservation efforts.
The rigid concrete didn't allow the marble to expand and contract, and the headstones quickly cracked under their concrete caps. The Historical Society is currently employing less drastic procedures for preserving the stones.
Kim Zunino finished the tour by completing a giant loop of the cemetery. She thanked all of the participants for attending and supporting the Historical Society.
"There's many, many other stories that I haven't even touched upon, but that's just a few that we've uncovered," she said to the tour at its conclusion.
Other interesting facts:
- Headstone cleaning is an involved process. Kim Zunino cautioned people never to use ionized cleaners, bleach, or anything caustic that will break down the stone. One good cleaner is D2, a biocide, which is neutral and will not react with the headstones. Plastic bristle brushes and low-psi sprayers should be used to minimize the damage to the marble, slate, or granite. Water is perhaps the safest way to clean a headstone.
"You can clean them, but they will never be as sparkly and beautifully white as the day they were carved," Zunino said of the marble tombstones.
- When cemeteries were decluttered, slate was generally removed and thrown out. The used slate was frequently repurposed for flagstones in walkways and for landscaping.
Kim Zunino shared an anecdote about the proclivity of Boston-area bakers towards using slate in their ovens.
"In Boston,…(bakers) would go out to the old graveyards and steal slate, and people would get bread with dates an parts of names on it," Zunino said.
- The Tewksbury Cemetery Corporation was asked to build a receiving tomb within two years of acquiring the historical burial ground from the town of Tewksbury. The company lived up to its promise, though it took 13 years for the tomb to be completed.
People who died during the winter months had to be interred in receiving tombs because of the harsh weather, and the fact that the hand-dug graves couldn't easily break the frost line.
"It was nearly impossible to dig a grave in the midst of winter in New England," Zunino said.
Occasionally, people simply used barns to store family members until the ground thawed in the spring.
- Headstones of children were often smaller than those of adults. Siblings that died prematurely were frequently buried under a single headstone. Children's stones often were decorated with carvings of lambs to symbolize innocence.