Elaborate headstones find art even in death in New England | Story
PORTLAND, Maine — Ron Romano spends a lot of time wandering old cemeteries, studying old headstones.
It’s not that Romano is morbid, or a macabre morbid. Nor is he a dark goth, dressed all in black and sporting thick eyeliner.
Romano is just a Mainer who relishes two of his favorite things: history and the outdoors.
Since retiring just over a decade ago, the Portland native has spent countless hours scouring New England cemeteries for interesting headstones and the stories behind them. Fortunately for the public, Romano does not hesitate to share the information and the photos he unearths. His fourth book on the subject, “Curious Gravestones in Northern New England,” is due out this spring.
The new tome is a sequel to his 2020 work “Billboard Monuments of Maine,” which describes a rare type of group headstone memorializing multiple members of a family at once. For this book, he located and studied 38 such monuments in Maine.
The new book does the same for four more in Maine, four in New Hampshire and 27 in Vermont. He also found a headstone in Vermont shaped like a toilet seat — but that’s a whole different story, he said.
Now that spring is slowly spreading across Maine, we asked Romano for a list of five intriguing tombstones that readers could seek out for themselves.
“Asking me to choose five tombstones in Maine that I find most interesting is like asking a parent to choose their favorite child,” he said, “but there you go.”
Dr. Nathaniel Morrill, Portland
In his long travels across the state, Romano only ever found two headstones with images of coffins engraved on them. This example is in the Middle Range Pond Cemetery. The other is in Kennebunk.
“This marker is for Dr. Nathaniel Morrill, who died in 1807 at the age of 27 in Poland,” Romano said. “The coffin and other decorative features were carved by an accomplished headstone maker named Alpheus Cary, who worked for two or three years in the workshop of our region’s first stonemason, Bartlett Adams. [in Portland].”
The willow is a common symbol found on 19th century markers. The star and the letter “G” are probably Masonic symbols.
In addition to the jumble of symbols, the stone also has an interesting epitaph.
It reads: “By his sudden and melancholy death, occasioned by an unruly ox, his friends and acquaintance have been deprived of a worthy associate, and this town of a useful and respectable citizen.”
As the doctor was walking around in the afternoon, he came across a farmer who was bringing a huge ox to market, according to Romano’s research. The beast then broke free, attacked the doctor, impaled him and threw him in the air.
“The doctor’s back was broken and he only lived a few hours,” Romano said.
Lucy Ulmer, Rockland, Maine
This stone adorns the Tolman Cemetery on Lake Avenue.
In the late 19th century, tombstones were often decorated with skulls, crossbones, skulls, winged hourglasses, and other reminders of humanity’s fleeting time on earth.
“Some stonemasons have even created interesting and one-of-a-kind soul effigies,” Romano said, letting their imaginations run wild. He’s one of them.”
Lucy Ulmer lived a short life, dying at the age of 2 in 1796, but her memory lives on in her rustic but striking headstone.
“The effigy is shaped like a light bulb and has empty round eyes,” Romano said. “The simple stylized wings are more like the eight legs of a spider than the wings of a soul.”
Captain Benjamin Wyman Morse, Bath
By the mid-1800s, many cities were creating peaceful park-like cemeteries in their suburbs. They encouraged visitors to walk around, feed the squirrels and commune with the dead.
“These spaces encouraged stonemasons to create interesting monuments that mimicked the landscape,” Romano said. “Tombstones depicting birds, flowers, and vines, or carved in the shape of rock piles or tree stumps, can be found throughout Maine.”
Perhaps the greatest example of this type of marker is in Bath’s Oak Grove Cemetery on Oak Grove Avenue. There, the Captain Benjamin Wyman Morse Stone takes the form of a life-size tree trunk.
“It’s so tall at 20 feet or more, and surrounded by very tall natural trees, that a casual passerby might peek into it and assume it’s real,” Romano said. “The tree bark and roots are exact, and there is even natural lichen growing on the trunk to add to its authenticity.”
Hanson Family, Saco
Romano’s line of study focuses more on 18th and 19th century hand-carved tombstones, but he occasionally finds new machine-made markers of interest. This huge cube of polished granite, perched on an angle, is one of them.
It commemorates 11 members of the Hanson family and is located in Saco’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.
“This monument is called ‘art in the park’ and helps us appreciate the landscapes of cemeteries as open-air museums,” Romano said.
Most of the family members commemorated on the Curious Stone lived in the late 19th century.
“The land this stone sits on is mostly devoid of other markers, so it really stands out as a work of art,” Romano said.
Elwell Family, Buxton, Maine
Romano’s latest pick is likely the only one of its kind in Maine. Commemorating 13 members of the Elwell family, it stands in the small Martin-Titcomb-Elwell cemetery on Route 22 in Buxton.
“Two stubby granite posts support an eight-sided marble tombstone that spins on a wheelset between the posts,” Romano said. “Each of the eight panels is inscribed with names and dates and visitors could stand in front of the monument and spin the huge piece of marble to find whoever they wanted.”
Romano included it in his 2020 book on billboard monuments, even though it didn’t strictly fit the criteria because it was so weird.
“Today the marble piece has been secured so that we cannot rotate it, but it is truly a one-of-a-kind headstone and certainly deserves its place in the top five most interesting headstones I have ever seen. ‘ve found in Maine,” Romano said.
To order one of Romano’s books on the history of New England tombstones or to find out where he will speak next, contact him at [email protected]
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