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By Mike Bisceglia

Hampton Union, Tuesday, November 27, 2007

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

HAMPTON — In the early years of this country, death was not a distant thought.

It was always close at hand. The lifespan was shorter, and the end of life by any number of causes could occur quickly and with little or no warning. Infant and child mortality rates were high, and a common cold or simple infection could spell doom for the individual unfortunate enough to have such a malady.

In the early years of Hampton, the village was an agrarian community, and the concept of a unified cemetery was not a consideration. Many families buried their dead on their own properties. There are 11 public and family cemeteries located in the town.

With the passing of merely a few decades, the concept of burial began to change. The Pine Grove Cemetery, located on Winnacunnet Road, is one of the oldest cemeteries in New Hampshire. Town records indicate that some folks may have been interred there as early as 1638, the year of the town’s founding. Although the earliest markers indicate the deaths of those buried there to be 1690, these markers are etched in stone. Those buried there prior to that year may have had their final resting place designated by a wooden marker.

The prime place for burial was in the front, close to the gate. Wealthy families could afford those plots. Those less affluent were relegated to locations to the rear of the cemetery. It should also be noted that families who could afford such a luxury had stones markers cut by stone masons in Boston or in the Merrimack Valley. The less affluent had graves with stones crudely chiseled by a semi-literate colonist. There are more than 250 graves in the Pine Grove Cemetery. The last recorded burial was 1785.

It is interesting to note the cultural transition of how death was viewed in early New England. Early stones are marked by winged skulls and hourglasses, supposedly to mark the soul’s flight into the afterlife. Later tombstones bore a weeping willow, a cherub, an urn or simply a brief epitaph of the deceased. Further, unlike modern cemeteries which are carefully groomed and maintained, grazing animals both ate and fertilized the confined flora.

Within walking distance of Pine Grove is the Ring Swamp Cemetery, located on Park Avenue adjacent to the high school. The first individual to be buried there was Joshua Towle in September 1797. Lucy Garland Haselton was the last. She was buried in 1934. Fewer motifs appear on the more than 350 grave markers located here. Inscriptions are more in evidence here than at Pine Grove. The most famous of which occurs several times:

Behold and see as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare for death to follow me.

The markers in this cemetery were almost all produced by professional carvers like the Noyes family, although a few families still placed their own crudely carved fieldstones to mark grave sites.

On a related note, in 1890, John Brown, a cemetery worker was voted in by the town selectmen to care for the hearse (a horse-drawn carriage) and for ringing the bell during funerals. In 1909, John, age 79, died. He had been diligent in his funereal work since 1884. He was replaced by his son, Edward P. Brown.

One could take a stroll among the rows of ancient tombstones of both the Pine Grove or the Ring Swamp Cemeteries to be an experience you just might enjoy. If so, it is wise to contact the local police department prior to your visit. They would be delighted to assist you.

A special thanks to Doug Aykroyd, Scoutmaster of Troop 177, and to the folks of the Lane Memorial Library for their assistance in writing this article.

Mike Bisceglia Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in Hampton.

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