Touring Eastham's oldest graveyards
Originally published in The Cape Codder, Sept. 3, 2015
There’s a whole lot of history lurking between the headstones of Eastham’s Bridge Road Cemetery, and it’s likely that no one knows the stories of the town’s oldest graveyards better than Bob Carlson.
Take a walk with Carlson through the cemetery, and he’ll cover just about every inch — except, of course, for the far southwestern corner, next to the Cape Cod Rail Trail. That’s the “spooky corner,” according to Carlson.
“We have ghost hunters that come in here,” Carlson says of the sandstone headstones that occupy the corner. “People come in at night with all kinds of equipment, looking for lights and sound, and they get eaten by mosquitoes. Two different groups that have nothing to do with each other both said, ‘Down in that corner.’ So when I do my tour, I’m not going to go near that corner.”
A descendant of Thomas Paine, Carlson offered up a passionate approach to this walk into the past. On the tour, the graveyard is marked by about 40 flags, and a handout is provided that lists the keys to the numbers.
Carlson won’t be taking anyone up close to view the Smith stones, but he offers up more details of this graveyard that served Eastham from 1754 until 1886.
For instance, in the 1700s, headstone designs here were dominated by the work of the Geyer brothers of Boston. Geyer gravestones can be identified by the pirate-style skulls on top of the marker. Walk a little further into the 19th century, and the style changes.
“By 1816, the images of winged skulls had changed to urns and willows,” Carlson notes. “Now the thinking had changed more from emphasis on the sadness and mourning of the people left behind as opposed to these things that were the ‘you’re going to die and go to hell’ kind of thing.”
The 1800s also saw the skulls being replaced by angel heads, although the two would be combined on occasion.
There’s a handful of sandstone gravestones in the Bridge Road Cemetery and the older Cove Burial Ground on Route 6, some of which belong to the Knowles family.
“People who decided on this kind of stone came from the Connecticut River Valley, because that’s where the stones came from,” Carlson noted. “I was talking with some people here the other day and they said, ‘We’re from Easthampton, Conn., and we’re Knowles.’ I said, ‘Good grief, we’ve got all these Knowles gravestones in here, and some of them are sandstones.’ They said, “We live right next to a sandstone quarry in Portland (Conn.).’ That was sort of a confirmation.”
There’s also a wide variety of epitaphs on the stones, such as this phrase of choice from the 1700s: “As you pass by and cast an Eye / As you are now so once was I.” Carlson also points out how how husbands often ended up with better quality gravestones than their wives. There’s also preventive measures to keep these stones from aging, and Carlson knows all the secrets.
Any way that you look at it, a lot of Eastham history is covered in this graveyard, once the home of the town meeting house (1720-1820).
“If you walk around this cemetery in a clockwise direction, you’re essentially walking from 1750 into the late 1800s, in terms of styles of the grave stones and images on the grave stones,” he says. “That’s one of the main reasons that people come here — you go to a big cemetery, it’s harder to pick out the stones. Here, you just go around in a circle.”
Don Wilding is a lecturer, tour guide, and author of two books: "Henry Beston's Cape Cod: How 'The Outermost House' Inspired a National Seashore," and "A Brief History of Eastham: On the Outer Beach of Cape Cod." His "Shore Lore" column appears weekly in the Cape Codder.