When Daniel Barlow walks through a cemetery, he sees more than a pile of headstones. With wide gazes, he can guess what the community was like over the generations. By the size and type of stone used, he can read the general wealth of the city he is visiting. And then, by taking a closer look at the stones themselves, Barlow can examine the epithets and symbolism and tell you a lot about the people buried there.
Barlow’s fascination has been with him throughout his life, from the early days when he grew up near scenic Hollis, New Hampshire, and saw the local cemetery, which was nestled off the quintessential Main Street, filled tombs – some featuring creepy carvings, including a winged skull (called a “death’s head”) that caught his eye.
“It had a different energy than the rest of the city,” he said.
The folklore behind graveyards is that it’s the place “where the veil between life and death is thinnest,” Barlow said of being frightened by graveyards as a child. “Culture told me it could be dangerous.”
Today, Barlow lives in Barre City, the “Granite Center of the World”, where an entire industry and local economy has been built on tombstones, mausoleums, sculptures, monuments and more. Barlow is the executive director of the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic in Barre.
Recently, on a gloomy Friday morning, as the leaves were just beginning to work their autumnal magic, Barlow and I met at Elmwood Cemetery in Barre. I grew up in Barre and know the local cemeteries as well as anyone who grew up in the city knows them. I often attended funerals or took leisurely walks. I used to do practice runs through Hope Cemetery because its perimeter is one kilometer and the scenery within this route is unparalleled: thousands of monuments that show the knowledge -make the most talented stone carvers in Barre.
While Hope Cemetery is the nationally recognized museum piece, Barlow wanted to meet in Elmwood.
“I think there’s more to say here,” he said.
Whenever Barlow moves to a new community, he visits cemeteries instead of reading about the town’s history. His wanderings in public cemeteries tell him just as much.
This curiosity turned into a desire to visit the cemeteries of Vermont, sometimes looking for the graves of famous or eminent people. But it became the symbolism and the messages on the stones that really piqued his interest.
“It wasn’t until years later that I started researching the meaning of all the symbols,” he said.
It became a study that took him far into the cemeteries of Vermont and beyond.
“I look for rare or unusual artwork, more in the realm of folk art,” he said. “(The sculptor) may not have been a master or an expert, but he carved stone and brought unusual imagery and unusual symbolism… Something that comes out of the ocean of artwork typical of the cemeteries.”
Barlow said that in Vermont there are many signs of Puritan tradition. “It was a religion that had a very cruel view of life: you lived to suffer.”
He continued, “Part of the Puritan ethic is that you can’t walk away from the glory of God. … That meant no fancy artwork. … This meant that the artwork on the tombstones ended up being very dark and very representative of the religious culture.
Headstones often told visitors to live life to the fullest because “death was just around the corner,” he said.
But then the message became more spiritual in nature here in Vermont. Carvings began to include more symbolism supporting the idea that the spirit was on its way to heaven. Barlow describes the message as “more mellow, more spiritual”.
During our rainy walk through Elmwood Cemetery we saw pictures or urns and veils, inverted torches, willows, clasped hands, fingers pointing skyward. A grave in the shape of a tree stump catches our eye. Barlow simply states, “life cut short”.
We see roses (love), thistles (sorrow, often of Scottish origin), lamps (remembrance or immortality), pineapples (prosperity), as well as symbols for Masons, Knights of Columbus and others. service groups. Sculptures are everywhere; strange but familiar names; the dates of birth and death are revealing.
“The garden variety cemetery in New England has a lot to say,” Barlow said, noting that it’s always a good idea to bring water when visiting a cemetery, because putting a splash of water on hard-to-read sections of a stone can make it easier.
“You always have to be respectful,” he said. “Of course, it’s a final resting place first.”
Greg Melville also loves cemeteries.
He has just published “Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries” (Abrams Press).
Cemeteries tell us about our beliefs, our principles, our economic and cultural values, Melville says in this examination of how we treat and abuse our dead.
Given the subject matter, Melville moves quickly and with a keen sense of connections, trends and the absurd.
He notes, for example, that post-World War II suburban developments were inspired by the simplicity of design that began decades earlier in cemeteries. The book says that the 144,000 cemeteries in the United States collectively take up more space than the entire state of Delaware.
Dying is big business in America; Melville writes that the “death industrial complex” generates $20 billion in annual sales.
According to a recent review, “The book takes a look over the horizon at what lies ahead in the dying sector, given the number of urban cemeteries that are full or nearly full, and struggling to sustain because they lack new income.”
He continues, “Melville has researched, reported, and written a powerful book that not only calls on us to embrace fair treatment of all Americans in death but also in life. It is up to us to remedy the injustices of the past in American cemeteries because, as Melville reminds us, “the dead have no voice”.
For Barlow, however, cemeteries will always be about appreciation, artwork, stories and history.
His walks in the cemeteries will always be a source of relaxation and interest. As he got older, he began to think about his own mortality and his legacy. He lost dear friends. And a heart attack gave him insight beyond his morbid curiosity.
Since the other day, however, Barlow hadn’t decided on a headstone or what might be on it.
Steven Pappas is editor of the Times Argus and the Rutland Herald.