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Headstone poems from Smithfield cemeteries

The breath of the Spirit is in them

By Harry Anderson

They have a website, the small cadre of volunteers who for about five years have cleaned up Smithfield’s historic cemeteries. If you Google “Friends of Smithfield Cemeteries”, you’ll see photos of them at work: Buzz with a chain saw, Jack with a weed whacker, Don clipping thistles, Lon muscling a cracked headstone, and Skip bolting a sign. Every other Saturday morning they meet at 9 at the Conservation Building in the rear of the police department and head out to one of the town’s more than 120 historic cemeteries to undo what decades of neglect have wrought.

Just last fall George “Skip” Tuetken began to give close attention to the inscriptions chiseled upon many of the headstones and thought it a good idea to collect them and, perhaps, someday to publish the collection in book form. But as he went from cemetery to cemetery, he was discovering that time and weather had been obliterating the inscriptions. He heard of Ken Postle’s success in restoring ancient headstones throughout the Blackstone Valley and enlisted his help.

Skip caught on quickly to Postle’s technique – use a solution called D2, a not-too-stiff brush, and lots of elbow grease – and is lovingly cleaning lichen, letter by letter, off the words embedded in the stones, making legible again the grievers’ most deeply felt feelings for the lost one. He has this to say about his work: “When I read those poems/inscriptions, I imagine the time period and how the person who wrote it felt in doing so. I usually feel quite good about it, but all too often it is about someone who died at a very young age and I just feel the sorrow that the parents must have felt. At times, it really can be rather emotional.”

Four grave markers in Cemetery #22 tacitly bespeak a sad tale of a family’s encounter with misfortune of immeasurable dimensions some 130 years ago:

CORA L. HANNAH A.

Daughter of Daughter of

HENRY A. & EMLY M. HENRY A. & EMILY M.

SMITH SMITH

Died July 7, 1877 Died July 9, 1877

Aged 6 yrs., 8 mo., 11 days Aged 2 yrs., 10 mo., 3 days

Our loving child Our loving child

Only two days separate the deaths of the sisters. But when Skip had cleaned the other two near-by stones, he learned more of the Smith family’s misfortune:

HENRY A. SMITH EMILY M. SMITH

Died Nov. 18, 1876 Died July 13, 1886

Aged 58 years Aged 46 years, 1 mo., 15 days

We shall meet again We have met again

A quick calculation reveals that Henry had pre-deceased his daughters by eight months, and Emily at age 36 had to bury all her loved ones and carry on somehow for nine years until her passing.

Some inscriptions come from old hymns, some from Scripture, and others from literature. Some come from the hearts of the bereaved. Whatever their source, they reflect what Rev. Elisha A. Hoffman says of them in his preface to an 1895 hymnal (Christian Endeavor Echoes): “The breath of the Spirit is in them. They will stir emotion. They will inflame affection. They will be streams refreshing. They will prove bearers of power.”

On their 27-year-old son Otis’ headstone, Benjamin and Phebe Pain, in 1831, chose these lines from an old Isaac Watts hymn:

Just as we see the lonesome dove,

Bemoan her widowed state,

Wandering she flies through all the grove,

And mourns her loving mate.

In Cemetery #52 sits a marker that bears an elegy that blends a verse from the 34th Psalm with words of the hymn “When Shall We Meet Again?” in memory of Phebe Eddy, who died November 9, 1852, at age 73 yrs., 7 mo’s, 4 days:

Up to that world of light, take us dear Saviour.

May we all there unite, happy forever.

Where kindred spirits dwell,

May our music swell.

And time our joy dispel, never no never.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,

But the Lord delivered her out of them all.

Phebe’s daughter, Fanny M. Eddy, added a poignant postscript:

I miss thee, my mother. Oh when do I not.

To grace the stone, found in Cemetery #71, of their daughter, Lavina, who died October 9, 1824, at age 13 yrs., 11 mo, 1 day, Willard and Rachel Smith quoted from Anne Steele’s 1760 poem, “On the Death of a Child”:

So fades the lovely blooming flow’r,

Frail smiling solace of an hour;

So soon our transient comforts fly,

And pleasure only blooms to die.

Skip notes that his project has only just begun and goes on to say, “I am certain that there are literally hundreds more headstone verses in town that we will add to our collection in the coming years.” He quickly pleas, “With more volunteers, we can hasten the project along.”

Lon Thurber has emailed this writer a copy of a Resolution introduced to the House of Representatives by Antonio Giarrusso, whose district is East Greenwich and West Greenwich (District 30). The Resolution, passed by the House, proclaims Saturday, April 16, 2016, to be “Historic Cemetery Restoration/Awareness Day” in the State of Rhode Island. In part, the Resolution reads:

“WHEREAS, The State of Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission considers our state’s cemeteries to be ‘among Rhode Island’s most unique and most overlooked historic resources’; and . . .WHEREAS, Rhode Island’s historic cemeteries are a rich source of local history and the place of eternal rest for many of our state’s original settlers. They deserve our respect, restoration, and maintenance . . .”

In observance of Historic Cemetery Restoration/Awareness Day, the Friends of Smithfield Cemeteries – all eight or so of them – are gathering at 9 a.m. at the “Little Greenville Cemetery” (on the slope behind The Greenville Inn on Route 116) to reclaim its original dignity.

Ziba and Lucy Mowry, parents of Susan Smith Mowry, who died October 26, 1831, aged 15 years, 1 month, & 11 days, were making a point to be reckoned with when they chose to have carved in stone:

Behold and see as you pass by,

As you are now, so once was I;

As I am now, so you must be,

Prepare to die and follow me.