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Old gravestones more fleeting than you might think

Remnants of New England’s early days are all around.

Streets are named after families that first farmed there. Buildings remain, some restored and others in rougher shape.

Early settlers left behind another trace of their existence: The graves and old stones that identify their final resting places. Gravesites are clustered in public burial grounds, in family graveyards and a few are isolated at the side of the road.

The gravestones, particularly those made of slate, are a seemingly permanent record of a life. They are not. They are so fragile that some cemeteries prohibit gravestone rubbing for fear of damage.

Townsend’s Old Burying Ground on Highland Street has changed over the years. The town accepted the one-acre lot from William Clark in 1742, according to Ithamar Sawtelle in his 1878 “History, Town of Townsend.” Based on its location close to the meeting house and the number of years that Townsend had been settled, the lot had likely been used as a burial place before then, he opined. The meeting house began life atop what is now Meeting House Hill Road, and was later moved to its current location through use of oxen and logs.

As the town grew, the graveyard began to fill up. The town purchased more land closer to the town center for a new cemetery. The Cemetery and Parks Department now operates three cemeteries in town and recently cleared acreage for more plots.

In 1747, the town “voted to fence the burying place with a stone wall four feet and four inches high,” Sawtelle quoted from another source. The wall, once built, stood for a long time.

A photo from a souvenir booklet on Townsend Old Home Days, published in 1907, shows a cemetery vastly different from what is seen in 2015. It shows the stone wall, the graves in front of it and the intersection of two dirt roads.

Now, the stone wall is gone and pavement has replaced the dirt surface of Highland Street.

Also missing are the grave stones that were in front of that wall. The graves, themselves, are another matter.

In a talk given by Townsend historian Catherine Wilson in 1999, she mentioned those graves. A transcription of the talk is in the Townsend Historical Society’s collection.

The graves outside the wall were for victims of smallpox, Wilson said in a conversation this July.

Wilson experienced quarantines and isolation of diseased people first-hand. She was born during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed thousands of young, healthy adults. During her childhood, if someone in the house contracted measles or the whooping cough, the household was put under quarantine.

It wasn’t until her children were 8 to 12 years old that she was vaccinated, right along with her offspring.

Smallpox was an especially feared disease. Before the advent of modern vaccines and medication, the highly contagious and now-eradicated disease was a killer. Outbreaks swept through the area periodically.

Sometimes rural folks could not get the bodies into the burying grounds. Two members of Wilson’s family tree died of smallpox in Pepperell. The mother and son died during the winter and were kept in a snowbank until spring, she said.

Then they were buried by the side of the road. In the transcription of her 1999 talk, Wilson said the neighbors refused to allow the family to pass by their home on the way to the town cemetery.

A stone wall on Blood Street in that town marks the spot. It is decorated yearly with flowers, she said

The inscription reads:

In memory of Keziah Jewett Blood

And her son Nathan Blood

Died of small pox

December 1839

Restored by

Prudence Wright

Chapter NSDAR 1995

A contagious disease was not the only possible reason for a grave outside a graveyard wall. Suicides and people professing a different religion were also relegated to a lonelier grave, according to, a website about exploring history using the fragments that have survived.

Many gravestones have not survived the rigors of time. Slate cracks and peels, marble stones erode.

Some graves are left without stones, victims of not only time but vandalism or carelessness. Pieces of a broken stone were left with the Townsend Cemetery and Parks Department, said Superintendent Roger Rapoza. They were turned in when the purchasers of a home found them in the yard.

Rapoza does not know if the stone originated in Townsend.

The graves of the smallpox victims outside the Old Burying Ground were also a mystery to him. He only knows the cemetery as it looks now.

Those graves might be right where they always were, but covered with fill and pavement.

“It’s an awful place,” Wilson said of the intersection of Highland Street and Old Meetinghouse Road in front of the burial ground. In spring, the run-off from the hill was a problem, Wilson said. The road in front of the burying ground was built up for safety.

When asked what was done with the graves outside the wall, she replied, “Nothing.”

“They just left them there?”

“Sure,” she said.

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