High on a hill above the Taunton River in the south section of Bridgewater, Massachusetts sits the tiny, 19th century Alden Graveyard. It also goes by the name of Great Woods Graveyard, which I suspect was a name given in later times, although the name pays homage to the tall, straight white pine trees that were harvested over time for use in the region’s boat-building industry. (The graveyard’s earliest identification on Plymouth County deed transfers had it simply as a “burial lot”.) The graveyard is surrounded by a low, lichen-textured, New England-style stone wall, the kind that was constructed with “two-handers” (boulders that required two hands to carry.) The graveyard had a single, u-shaped carriage drive that would deposit “attendees” at the door of the centrally located Alden tomb.
The high perch where the graveyard sits is surrounded on three sides by rolling, terraced fields. We knew it as “Titicut Hill”, but there was also a brief and casual reference to another name — “Hill of Sorrow” — because a sachem’s daughter was murdered there, so Mom once claimed. I grew up next to the Alden Graveyard. The lot of land upon which our little home sat was owned in the early 1800’s by the Deacon Asael and his wife Sarah (Alden) Shaw. It was either Sarah’s two brothers — Solomon and Amasa — or, more likely, her father, Solomon, who — along with his son, Amasa — donated one acre of bordering land in the late 1700s for use as a “burying lot”.
It pains me to admit how much time my siblings and I spent playing among the headstones and upon the central tomb (and — as a fitting punishment — knee-deep in poison ivy that naturally loved the stone walls). If you stood on top of the earth-covered tomb, which in appearance resembled a hobbit home, and faced southwest, you had a sweeping view of rolling, terraced fields.* Beyond the fields, you could see the silvery thread of the Taunton River. Ok, so I want to believe that, but it’s a lie that I had so thoroughly convinced myself of. Bob — and my four other brothers — assure me that you couldn’t see the Taunton.** It suggests that the forest was working at its own regeneration, spreading outward from the banks to reclaim what it had lost in the prior centuries.
It can be expected that colonial era graveyards — with their utter lack of adornment — don’t excite interest beyond the occasional visitor. Visitors who, like me, enjoy musing about the somber and strenuous lives of 18th and 19thcentury New Englanders. They’re quiet, reflective places. That is, unless you’re a young girl who allows herself to be talked into entering the tomb. I will never forget the day I foolishly stepped into that dark, dank, silent space. There had to have been an insanely attractive reward offered by one of my brothers. Most likely Chris. I do recall descending at least one or two of the granite steps. (That must have been one of the conditions for my reward.) The heavy metal door was pulled shut and I was alone in the tomb, or “alone” only in the sense that I was the sole breathing person in a room that also housed dead bodies. I pounded and screamed for hours. Once again, that part is untrue. I think I pounded and screamed for five seconds. . . which seemed an interminably long time.
When the fields on the far side of the graveyard were covered with snow, the whole Alden Square neighborhood took to toboggans and skis and saucers and Flexible Flyers for hours of outdoor sledding. Alternatively, and when we needed a more immediate rush, we’d dash over to the graveyard; from the tomb’s summit, we’d either roll our bodies down (doable at any time of year) or — when snow cover allowed — steer our sleds along a twisting path, avoiding (as best we could) the headstones, much as skiers do on alpine courses. Like, very short courses. . . maybe 15-meter. (For those readers who are at this moment cringing, I promise that, as an adult, I’m much more respectful. . . and not as idiotic where it concerns personal safety, but I doubt your thought process ventured so far as to reflect on the hazards to personal well-being.)
For me, it wasn’t all about play, however. I came to know the families who slept quietly there, and would read and re-read the inscriptions and epitaphs. The earliest known owners of our home made that graveyard their final resting place. The Deacon Asael Shaw is truly “rest[ing] from his labors”, having lived to the surprising age of 92. And “resting place” really does have fulsome meaning, for 18th and 19th century folk believed that admission through the pearly gates could only be secured by presentation of a notarized form vouching for a life of hard work, sacrifice, misery, and really plain and uncomfortable “waring appearill”. (I love to insert that expression whenever possible.)
My fascination with graveyards, as you can imagine, has been a natural outgrowth from having been next-door neighbor to the bones and spirits of colonial era yeomen and the like. I intend to continue cultivating my interest when opportunity permits — if you’ve ever driven with me, you’ll no doubt have seen my head pivot when I spot a tiny graveyard. I only occasionally, however, will respond to the tug to stop and walk around. Maybe it’s because of the residual sense of terror it inspires — what if someone were to shut me in another tomb? Or, maybe it’s because I am too fearful of the day that my own flesh will mingle with the dust. I don’t want to rush things.
*By the way, it didn’t pay to take in the north view from Titicut Hill. All those red-brick buildings with bars covering the windows were a disturbing reminder that ours was generally known to the rest of the town as the “prison neighborhood”.
** Bob, bless his little heart, allows me to save face by qualifying his statement; it was possible that one could see the flood waters that would occasionally breach the banks and travel as far as the pigeon coops.