The rural Maine town that anchors my lifelong summers marked its 200th anniversary in 2014. A tour of private cemeteries was offered during the celebration.
For years I’d noticed cracked and toppled headstones along the sides of country roads. Deeper in the woods on hikes, I’d see clusters of graves, marked by head and foot stones, small and large, their descriptions worn by time to unreadable bumps. An enclosure of boulders, or a spiked iron fence bordered these family graveyards.
Today these rusting iron fences are disappearing due to high prices for scrap iron.
20th century hunters stalking moose, deer, or wild turkey would come across these small cemeteries at the edges of abandoned farms that have today been reclaimed by forests. Local conservators cleared the sites and deciphered names and dates on the old stones. Volunteer historians researched old deeds. Schoolchildren studying town history cleared weeds and bushes and marked with cairns these people-sized scoops left in the earth.
Rows of small headstones showed that some disease had felled the children with lightning speed. Away in a corner of the property might be the solitary grave of the family black sheep—banished from the clan’s burying ground. One striking example is a headstone at the edge of the town’s main road. The government-issue flag beside the military monument announces that a Civil War veteran lies buried here. While his family may have ostracized him in death, the location they chose subjects him today to the roar of traffic passing along the blacktop.
“How ghoulish,” I thought when I signed up for the tour. Instead I joined a poignant walk through 200 years of history and gained new respect for a town whose people honor their forebears.
four years later I’ve been able to pay my respects to my own father on a recent trip to Denmark. Hans Pederson was raised in the village of Stenstrup before he became a pioneer U.S. immigrant in 1884. He went on to become the noted Northwestern contractor I’ve written about in my recent memoir, The Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks, Searching for My Father.
With my newfound family, I visited the church where my father was christened and the parish cemetery where his family is buried. Instead of single headstones, each rural Danish family had its own little garden walled in by a low hedge. Well-tended flower gardens lie within the hedge, a touch that give each plot the sense of being an ancestral home.