A newsletter on the beautification of East Greenwich’s most valuable but neglected historical assets … our historical cemeteries.
By Alan F. Clarke
There has been a lot of activity lately in places not noted for much activity: our cemeteries. Late last year, the Town Council authorized a five-member commission to look into things cemeterial and I suspect they were surprised to find all five chairs quickly occupied by energetic and interested citizens devoted to the task at hand. And all have talents useful to the cause. They started off the cleanup season with a bang by attacking briars and weeds at five cemeteries in May with an energetic group of volunteers helping. Another cleanup is scheduled for this Saturday, June 21, and one hopes the enthusiasm will continue as we work into the colder months when foliage dies off and we can see into these places once again.
FYI… what to use here, historic or historical? Historical, it seems. Something historic is an event, a momentous occasion, something carving out its place in history by significant impact. Historical refers to something from the past, a pothole or “thank-you, Ma’am” along the road of the ages, a person, place, or relic from the past. I’m glad I do not have to learn English.
A little history…
… for newcomers to town and even local folks who are puzzled by cemeteries showing up in odd places, not just here but all over New England. East Greenwich was founded by farmer-settlers granted lands in 1677 by the King of England for their service in the King Philip War, the ultimate battle with the native Narragansetts who were here first. All settlers got tracts of land west of town to farm and a small lot in the village should they want to reside or have a business there. Those choosing to live on their farms developed burial grounds on their property as the generations died off. These little family graveyards were often “out back” or “off to the side” of the houses and barns but today, with the housing plats being developed, they end up in some of the strangest places… backyards and even front yards close to the houses. It was in the 1890s that the odd collection of privately-operated graveyards on First Avenue were incorporated under the name East Greenwich Cemetery. About the same time, Glenwood Cemetery was incorporated and the cemeteries for immigrant Irish, Italians and Swedes were consecrated by their churches. Most burials since the turn of the century are in large cemeteries.
Through the years, several graveyards were lost, plowed under by farmers and developers with less than delight upon finding gravestones impeding their pathway to profit. Generally, no one really fretted too much over and most graveyards became repositories for rubbish and havens for poison ivy, and ever-hardy but nasty New England briars. One-by-one, the little gravestones sunk into the soil and disappeared into the woods. However, in the recent past, some of us with a love of the past realized that “thar’s history on them stones!” and we were watching them go bye-bye. The state legislature authorized a historical cemetery commission to study cemeteries and advise them regarding necessary legislation to protect them. The state commission then asked for municipal commissions in all the cities and towns and East Greenwich was the latest to get on the bandwagon. No more developing on top of historical cemeteries no matter where they appear… and they do appear in some of the darndest places. Nevertheless, they are sacred and protected by law. Today, in East Greenwich and all over Rhode Island, if there’s a cemetery on your property, you have to live with it or move yourself. No swimming pools, decks, gardens, or sheds. If there is a wall around it, the wall is protected too. In theory, there is also a 20 foot free-zone around the cemetery too, but I tend to think exceptions may be allowed because that’s a big chunk of property to tie up.
But we are modern people. We are not superstitious people: we don’t fear those out in the backyard rising up on moonlit nights and lilting to Danse Macabre, let alone being a threat to us mortals. We are interested in the town, its history, those who lived here in the past. This is a town chock-full of history and in our cemeteries are the names of those here before us once neatly carved in stone but now under attack by neglect, vandalism, and acid rain. These places are to be proud of. I would love to have a cemetery on my property and, if I did, I would tend to it with pride. I would know who was buried there, their stories, and I would welcome any family historians or Find-A-Grave photographers who wanted a look-see. In fact, if I were looking for a house these days, I’d put having a cemetery on the property as a definite plus factor.
Beside the work done by the East Greenwich Cemetery Commission and volunteers, two cemeteries have been adopted and cleaned by Boy Scouts as projects for their Eagle badge. Last Fall, Harrison Timperley and his troop cleaned cemetery EG-028, a really major cleanup. A few weeks ago, John Condon and his troop cleared a path into and cleaned EG-047, uncovering several stones not seen for a long time. And the East Greenwich Republican Town Committee has spent many hours over the last 18 months clearing out EG-006, a beautiful stonewalled cemetery right in the heart of one of our exclusive areas. When I saw each of these cemeteries for the first time, they were all dismal and sorely in need of attention. Today, they are cleared and people can visit them without crossing through people’s yards. They can see and photograph the gravestones, possibly adding to their family histories and our own town history. I thank everyone who worked these projects as well as the volunteers who worked with me last year and with the town commission this year.
Anyone following Grave Concerns for any length of time will recall my desire to find a sickle bar mower in order to quickly sever briar vines from their roots at ground level. I finally have one. A friend saw a TroyBilt Trail Blazer on sale at the Seekonk Speedway Flea Market one recent Sunday morning, called me and I ran up there and bought it. To be sure, it can be a dangerous machine. When it is used, we do not want others standing in the area. But when I have mastered it, I think it will serve to pre-cut these vine and briar-thick cemeteries to a point they will be much easier to tame. We’ll see.
Those viewing the recent Memorial Day Parade should have also seen the Town Cemetery Commission’s float mounted on a newly restored, re-floored and painted equipment trailer towed by me and my golf cart. That wasn’t AstroTurf, that was real grass, genuine Exeter sod from SodCo. And a real, if un-inscribed, gravestone. It all came together much too fast and we are lucky we made the parade at all but it was different actually being in the parade rather than watching it, as I have done since the 1977 Tercentenary Grand Parade. I admit to foreboding trepidation over the thought of coasting down King Street hill with that heavy trailer only controlled by the feeble brakes of a golf cart, but it worked out okay. Also it was great fun driving the golf cart, sans trailer, through the back streets after the parade was over. We don’t get a chance to do that very often. All in all, a great day for remembering those who were here before us and also paying attention to where they lay these days.
Local writer Alan F. Clarke is a member of the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries, East Greenwich area.
Nice job Alan!