Cemeteries in Vermont
My first exposure to New England cemeteries was in Savoy, MA. It was an old cemetery tucked off the back of an 18th century farmstead. The tombstones told the beginnings of a story about the Burnetts, a young couple who settled the land, turning forest into farm. raising their children, two of whom sadly died in infancy, another Sarah, who lived only to 17. The thin marble slabs that marked the burial sites were arranged neatly in a small plot, 30′ x 30′, bordered by stones plucked from the ground and collected into a small fence. A few old white cedars lined the outer edge of wall and the mossy floor of the cemetery was bouncy, indicating the hollow spaces below where the wooden coffins had rotted away and the ground had begun to cave in.
As I explored more and more of the area I started finding these small family cemeteries scattered throughout the forested hillsides of Vermont and Massachusetts. These were a matter of necessity in early settlement of the northeast, but by the early 20th century had largely been replaced by town and church cemeteries. Now in Burlington, I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring the larger cemeteries. The tombstones tell a different sort of story, they indicate social values, demographic changes, social status, and even geology. There are many sources that go into great depth about cemeteries (I’ve linked to some of them below), and here I’ll only provide a brief overview of cemeteries, and focus the content more on the ecology of a New England cemetery.
Geology of Tombstones
A cemetery is made to memorialize the deceased, to remind the living of those who walked the land before them. It is a way for us to grapple with our inexplicably ephemeral existence. A rock is a symbol of that permanence. And as much as we’d love for rocks to truly be eternal, they crumble into dust like the rest of us. Early American tombstones were sourced locally. But not all rocks crumble (or dissolve) at the same rate and by the late 18th century wealth enabled some people to transport more eternal granites to mark the site of their burial. By the mid-1800s, trains facilitated the movement of heavy materials, and tombstones began to be sourced from farther and farther afield. It wasn’t until the 20th century that granite really
A band of calcium rich rock draws a line down the eastern mountains inland to Missouri and to the coastal lowlands in Florida. The rocks are lithified marine deposits, an accumulation over millions of years of organic deposits (mostly shells) from ancient sea life that lived in the warm shallow waters off the coast of North America in a body of water called the Iapetus Ocean. Over time the accumulation of these sediments lithified into limestones. Most limestone tombstones are old, thin, and white to stained black. The writing is often faint and tombstones are often cracked.
Heat and pressure metamorphose limestones into a much harder rock known as marble. While these are still susceptible to dissolution from acidic rain, they are more resistant than limestones. Marble quarries in the Champlain Valley, Vermont Valley, and Taconic Mountains have sent Vermont marbles far and wide, including to DC for constructing the columns on the Jefferson Memorial (link). Marbles are locally abundant and began to be used throughout Vermont.
Granite is the most prized rock for tombstones. It does not dissolve and weathers very slowly. It is harder to carve, so many of the more ornate urns and statuary are carved in marble but sit atop granite pedestals.
Symbolism in Cemeteries
The Botany of Cemeteries
- Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister
- Written in Stone by Chet Raymo
- Your Guide to Cemetery Research by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
- Tree-stump Tombstones by Suzanne Ridlen
- Cemeteries and Graveyards: Voices of American Culture by Richard Meyer
- Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Vermont Mountains by Nancy Bazilchuk
- Lichens of the North Woods by Joel Walewski
- Cemetery Plantings and Their Symbolism (PDF)
- Assocation for Gravestone Studies
- Special Collections @ UVM has an incredible library of Vermont biographies
Click on images for descriptions and notes on symbolism, etc.