A Cape Cod Notebook 5/27/08

Listen God's Acre

By Robert Finch

During the years I lived in Brewster, my house was next door to Red Top Cemetery. It's a small rural burying ground that contains about 150 graves, the earliest of which is dated 1813. Most of the headstones are small slabs of soft white limestone whose dates and inscriptions have often been eaten away by two centuries of weather. No one of great importance is buried here, no Revolutionary or Civil War heroes. There are no large monuments to nineteenth century shipping or railroad magnates that one finds in the larger Cape Cod town cemeteries. Yet its rows of unpretentious markers possess a shared, if commonplace, humanity.

One summer I made an informal census of the residents of the graveyard to get some general sense of the makeup of this community in the past. Demographically, the dates on the headstones are typical of their age and place. The average age of Red Top's inhabitants is 43.6 years, roughly the national life expectancy during the late 1800s. Still, relatively few actually died in middle age. High infant mortality is balanced at the other end by a surprising longevity. Of those who survived infancy and childhood diseases, over a third reached seventy, and there were many octogenarians and nonagenarians, led by the venerable Dorcas Howland, who died in 1939 at the age of 99. The tough endured.

Out of the blurred legends and truncated stones, one hears certain emotions or attitudes shared by those who lie here, as well as hints of personal tragedy. An attitude of resignation and religious stoicism is found in the many references to "this vale of tears" or "this world of woe." Deceased children are commonly described as "faded blossoms," and deferred hope is found in the frequent references to "meeting again" in the afterlife. There are at least a half-dozen graves of young men "drown'd" or "lost at sea." One inscription that caught my eye was on the headstone of Leonard Sears, lost during the legendary and fatal gale of October 3, 1841. It reads as follows:

Tho' I drowned in yonder waves
Beneath this stone I sleep;
While some of my companions dear
Now lie beneath the deep.

The lines are written in the first person, but to me they conveyed the bleak comfort taken by the victim?s family in having at least been spared the more common fate of those whose sons were lost at sea - the empty grave.

Still, husbands, especially ship captains, tended to outlive their wives. Many a man went through more than one spouse in his lifetime. Captain Freeman Sears outlived all four of his wives. He eventually died in 1879, surrounding himself with his last three wives, leaving his first one, Hitty, for some reason, alone on the other side of the hill. After reading so many examples of linear polygamy and patriarchal control of the final domestic arrangements, it was gratifying to come upon the stone of one Deziah Hutchins, wife of John Hutchins. When John died in 1913, Deziah, in the practice of the day, added her own name and incomplete dates below those of her husband, presumably in anticipation of following him shortly. And that is how the stone reads today: DEZIAH HUTCHINS, 1841-19__.

I like to think that Deziah, at least, managed to escape.

myWGBH