by Shari Randall
Like most mystery writers, I find nothing strange about enjoying a spring afternoon stroll in a cemetery. Cemeteries are a Who’s Who of a community, each burial a story of a soul who walked the streets of a town that will be populated by my characters. There’s much to learn and contemplate about a place and its history in its cemeteries.
That’s why a couple of weekends ago I found myself driving through the tourist area of historic Mystic, Connecticut, past bustling shopping centers, outlet shops, and families enjoying ice cream cones at Twisters into the hushed beauty of historic Elm Grove Cemetery. Passing under its magnificent arch inscribed with the words “I am the resurrection and the life,” I entered a place that maintains its serenity despite being bordered by busy tourist attractions to the north and south.
After solving one of the eternal questions - where does one park in a cemetery? – my good sport husband and I found a place near the lovely memorial chapel and began our walk.
The Mystic area has many cemeteries, graveyards, and burial grounds. What’s the difference? The term “cemetery” came into use in the Victorian era, when a change in attitude toward death saw this term, from the Greek for “put to rest,” replace the term graveyard.
The mid nineteenth century saw a philosophical and physical evolution from the smaller colonial graveyards and burial grounds, with their flinty gray headstones ornamented with winged skulls, hour glasses, and crossed bones. The Victorians preferred to think of death as an eternal rest, and ornamented their graves with contemplative angels, urns, and weeping willows, turning from the pragmatic view of death as a bitter end. Indeed, one stone I passed in Elm Grove was engraved with the words “resting time.”
In 1822, a yellow fever epidemic in New York City killed over 15,000 people. Doctors traced the epicenter of the epidemic to an overcrowded cemetery at Trinity Church. This discovery encouraged moving burials away from populated areas and the rural cemetery movement was born. This coincided with the more Victorian view of death as an eternal slumber, and by the middle of the 19th century, rural cemeteries were considered a sign of a city’s progressivism and prosperity.
Following the successful example of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, Elm Grove has a park-like setting with narrow lanes curving through the gentle green landscape. Unlike Mount Auburn, Elm Grove occupies a site overlooking the Mystic River. It is an exceptionally pleasant place to walk with its million dollar views of the river and the charming historic houses lining the far shore. Colorful sailboats flit between the weeping willows and the tall, marble obelisks favored by Victorian mourners. I can’t help but think that those interred in this place enjoy the view and the spanking wind on this sunny day as much as I do.
Long branches of a weeping willow stroke the ground near the duck pond. The cemetery is delightful on this sunny day, but at night I can only imagine the shadowy gothic pleasures of the place.
For a writer grounding herself in a particular place, cemeteries offer much helpful information. Elm Grove is a Who’s Who of the well-heeled of Mystic, CT past, one of the settings in my upcoming Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack mystery series. The names engraved on the headstones - Cottrell, Hoxie, Minor, Tingley, Spicer - evoke the New England setting. So many women were named Phebe, Sara, and Hattie that I have a strong feeling that these names will hang on my characters’ family trees.
Some of the inscriptions bring into focus long ago events and how locals viewed them. Young Hubert Ellery Maxson gave his life for his country in 1861 “after serving two terms in the armies of the union for the suppression of the Southern rebellion.”
Because Mystic was and is an important maritime town, Elm Grove is full not just of typical Victorian mourning symbols. Its monuments feature artwork that honors those who made their living on and from the sea. Anchors, ships, and scientific equipment are some of the unusual motifs carved into several headstones. One stone, with a sailboat rendered, reads “Imagine the excitement on the other shore.”
Cemeteries also offer mysteries. One headstone is inscribed “Matilda, consort of….” Consort? Almost all other headstones proclaim “wife.” Sounds like there’s a story there.
Do you like to wander in cemeteries?