Ruth Bass: Cemeteries never scare the historians

Monday October 29, 2012


If you believe that certain unsettled souls emerge from purgatory on Halloween and wander about until the rooster crows at the dawn of All Saints Day, then you should stay away from cemeteries for at least the next three days or wear a disguise when you go.

Halloween may now be as modern as a holiday can be, decorated and commercialized into the billions. But its roots go back centuries to pagan celebrations and an ancient sense that the spirits of the dead were restless at that time of year.

That's when costumes came in. The living hid themselves for fear a hostile wandering spirit might recognize them.

These days, while All Saints Day is a holy day for Catholics, the holiday has an overwhelming secular component, including the irreverence of fake gravestones on front lawns.

As kids, we rode our bikes in a nearby cemetery, wonderfully safe from traffic. We skated on the cemetery pond, even after the neighborhood's bad boys told us the ice was made from whatever seeped out of the buried coffins. We found nothing in the cemetery to be afraid of - in the daytime.

But lots of people see them as spooky places. And then there are those who consider a cemetery a vast library of local history.

If you visit Richmond's Center Cemetery with Gloria Morse, for instance, you'll be far too busy to worry about spirits or wandering souls - even this week.

A native of Richmond who traces her family roots back to the 18th century, Gloria uses the cemetery as a primary source for gathering information about the early settlers - she is certainly not fearful of them. Her only concern is whether the weather will wipe away all the words eventually.

So she makes notes before time and acid rain take their toll. And she thinks about which stones should get a share of the small annual budget for restoration.

She's fascinated by the men who carved the early stones and she can identify many by style.

An Irish sculptor named Mullaney (his signature can be seen on one stone) is creator of the cemetery's most dramatic monument.

The bas relief sculpture shows quite graphically that it marks the grave of a man killed by a train. The train is there with a human arm protruding from under the wheels.


Stories are part of Gloria's fascination with the Richmond cemeteries, and she has hundreds of them.

She says the 30-year-old run over by the train was a physician and, ironically, son of the railroad station agent, who was himself later killed by a train.

You'd think a lesson would have been learned on the first round, but Gloria explains that where Richmond has one track now, it once had three, and people could get caught on the wrong track.

The cemetery is an art gallery, too. Lemuel Johnson's carvings of beatific faces are instantly recognizable once Gloria identifies the first one.

He was a Richmond man from East Road, and his faces are quite different from those done by a West Stockbridge carver. Weeping willows were a popular element, too, and each stone cutter had a distinctive style for those.

The first burial here was in 1764, and the following year, the place became an official cemetery.

Several graves honor veterans of the Civil War, and the town's highest ranking officer of the American Revolution, David Rosseter, is buried here.

Gloria could write a book about it all, but she hasn't yet. What she has written down is "in bits and pieces," she says. But she loves to take a walk in the cemetery and tell her stories. It's an exciting place for her, filled with the ghosts of history.

Ruth Bass is an author and free-lance writer who lives in Richmond. Her website is _ (


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