In the summer of 1770 old John Grout died, and a vague tradition tells us that he was buried in the parcel of ground reserved for a common at the center of the township. This tradition accords with the probabilities, because we know from a petition to the township proprietors that before the incorporation of the town, a burying place had been reserved on the Common “and some persons interred there.”
In April of that year in the “Dying imperfect words & Letters of a Dying man,” John Grout had sent to the distant proprietors his last petition begging that he might be confirmed in his disputed homestead right, and now he was granted by his townsmen a habitation whose tenure was unimpaired. They carved no stone to mark his grave, and, when after five years all trace of it had been obliterated and forgotten, they raised the meeting-house over his ashes, a fitting monument for one who was by his own statement the first permanent settler of the town.
John Davidson, Grout’s contemporary, and also a reputed first settler, long survived and, almost alone of the pioneers, a slate headstone marks his grave. Some of the pioneers were buried in their own fields; and a wooden slab or unmarked stone was the transitory memorial that for a time marked the place where they lay.
Some, when the infirmities of age came upon them, returned to the place whence they came to die among their kindred. And some, perhaps, rested in the shadow of the old Presbyterian meetinghouse in Peterborough, which, before the building of the Jaffrey Meeting-house was the church of many of the Jaffrey pioneers. After the meeting-house was built the place of sepulture, from ancient custom brought over the sea, was in its shadow. God’s Acre it was called, and he was exiled in death who might not share with his kindred this appointed place of rest.
In 1784 a committee was appointed to layout the “burreing yard,” which in solemn phrase they denominated” the house appointed for all he living.” With the long vista of mortality opening before them, they were sparing of room. And before the second generation had passed they were looking for new fields wherein to lay their dead.
The lot selected was about one and one-half acres in content, and was divided by an “alley” through the center, twelve feet in width. No family lots or subdivisions, so far as now appears, were provided in the first survey. In the meetinghouse they apportioned the pew ground, because there was pride of family and place; but here they were reduced to a common level, and there were no perplexing questions of precedence or right.
Nevertheless, with seemly regularity, the graves were placed in rows from north to south. They built their roads with windings and curves, but here they worked by rule and line, so that they might be found orderly on the Great Day. After a hundred years the old slate headstones stood tilted and askew, and though righted with filial regard they still move as if some premonitory stirring had seized upon these sequestered bones. It was not by chance that those early graves were dug due east and west, with the headstone facing the sunset. It was the mode their faith had taught them, so that when they arose to meet their Lord in the air, their faces would be illumined with the effulgence of morning.
On the year following the laying out of the graveyard they built a wall around it, so that stray cattle would not tread the turf above their dead and disturb their sleep. It was built according to the specifications for such use made and provided, and a competent committee was appointed to “lett out the work, view and except the same.” The builders were approved workmen and the wall has stood their fitting testimonial to this day.
In 1778 they chose a “Saxon to dig graves.” He was a mighty man, that “Saxon”, and never ceased his labors until he had gathered the last of the stubborn old pioneers into his narrow field. James French was the first sexton, and his line of employment remains unbroken. For many years there was no hearse in town; and, after the dignified custom of the old times, the coffin, covered by a pall, was borne upon the shoulders of men. In later years, after the steeple had been added to the meeting-house, down to the memory of many now living it was the custom to toll the bell for the dead; and the solemn, undulating tones, as they rolled away over hill and valley, told to the scattered farms the number of the years of the departed.
In 1778 they chose a “Saxon to dig graves.” He was a mighty man, that “Saxon”, and never ceased his labors until he had gathered the last of the stubborn old pioneers into his narrow field. James French was the first sexton, and his line of employment remains unbroken. For many years there was no hearse in town; and, after the dignified custom of the old times, the coffin, covered by a pall, was borne upon the shoulders of men. In later years, after the steeple had been added to the meeting-house, down to the memory of many now living it was the custom to toll the bell for the dead. And the solemn, undulating tones, as they rolled away over hill and valley, told to the scattered farms the number of the years of the departed.
The old headstones were generally of slate. And the inscriptions and emblems were those common in old New England. Some of the best of the slate headstones were, it is believed, imported from England, and their condition—many as legible as when first engraved—is the best possible evidence of their fitness as memorials.
Many bear the emblem of sorrow, the weeping willow and the urn, some, the hour glass, and one, the rude round form of a human face adorned with wings, emblematical of heavenly flight. Great age and tender youth lie side by side.
Here lies Moses Stickney, according to the inscription, the “first child who trod the wilds of Jaffrey.” His farm was on the east shore of Thorndike Pond, and he lived, as a man should with such a beginning and such surroundings, a full century of healthful, active years.
Many more are here who lived to a good old age. But, sadly, a larger number were cut down in infancy and youth. The stones are proportioned to their age and stature, tall and imposing for an old and respected citizen, with military and ecclesiastical titles carved large to view. And a tiny stone for a child. The children have been there long. And it is so still down there that they have grown impatient it seems, and the little tilted stones are like childish hands protruding from the turf, crying like youthful Samuel lest they be overlooked: “Here am I, for Thou didst call me!”
It is easy to think of life in a retired New England town as sheltered and serene as its woodland lakes, but here were lives full of episode and adventure, pulsating from their struggles with an untamed wilderness, and amid the throes of the Revolution out of which a nation was born. Half a dozen lying here so quietly could have told you from vivid experience the story of Bunker Hill.
Others could have recounted the weary march to Bennington, where they stood with Stark against the invading foe. Here in the family lot of Joseph Thorndike, whose better memorial is the beautiful lake that bordered his farm at the foot of Monadnock, is a cenotaph that takes us from the limits of the township into the realm of conjecture and romance. It is erected to the memory of Luke Thorndike, who followed the sea, and as captain of a ship, died and was buried in the storied island of Martinique.
Here lies Dr. Adonijah Howe, a skilled and progressive physician in his day, whose fame and usefulness extended far beyond the boundaries of the township. He was first in the region to inoculate for the dread disease of smallpox. Students of medicine came to town for study of their profession with him; and he was employed by the State for the treatment of obdurate cases of soldiers wounded in the battles of the Revolution.
On a monumental double headstone are the names of Captain Samuel Adams and his wife, who were cut down untimely by typhoid fever, the dreaded pestilence that walked in darkness, which none could avert. It is his sufficient fame in Jaffrey that he built the meetinghouse that is still his monument and throws its shadow upon his grave.
Among the arrivals in 1786, warned from the township by the constable, as the Nation yet warns the poor and unfit from its door, lest they become a charge and a burden, were Peter Davis, a clockmaker, his wife, Hannah, and Hannah, his child. It was a cold welcome for the poor clockmaker, and had he heeded the warning, the town of Jaffrey would have missed the memory and influence of the singular, self-reliant, and devoted life of the daughter that it has long treasured. She lived alone in her own little house to a good old age, loved and honored as few in town have been, and was laid to rest beside her mother here, and, no doubt, beside her father too, completing the family circle, where a marble stone tells her name and years, and its inscription, “I know that my redeemer liveth” bears testimony to her unclouded faith.
And here a little farther on, is a disciple of peace, whose grave might well be a place of pilgrimage in a troubled world. His gravestone is our introduction, though he was often honored with places of trust by his townsmen. He is “Mr. Lemuel Maynard, who died May 4, 1803, in the 65 year of his age.” That he was respected is shown by the honorable title of Mister, which was not in those days indiscriminately applied. But his character as a neighbor and townsman, we may be sure is truthfully represented by his epitaph: “He Was A Man Of Peaceful Life.”
A 20th century denizen of the Old Burying Ground is worth a mention. The prominent American author Willa Cather had a long association with Jaffrey. She first visited in 1917 and returned many times, usually in the autumn, through 1940. Willa Cather died in 1947 and although she hadn’t been to Jaffrey for a time, she had had such a deep feeling for the town that her wish was to be buried there. Her grave (and that of her friend and longtime companion Edith Lewis) may be found in the southwest corner of the Old Burying Ground. A quote from My Antonia is inscribed on the gravestone.
This excellent viideo by Robert Stephenson captures the historical feel of the Old Burying Ground: