By Jaci Arnone
What better way to get into the Halloween spirit than visiting one of our local historic cemeteries. It’s one of our family’s favorite autumn past times, when the weather is perfect for leaf and grave peeping. And with over 2,800 historic cemeteries in Rhode Island alone, we have plenty to choose from.
One of the key factors which makes or breaks our visits is keeping our kids engaged in activities which honor basic cemetery etiquette. Setting my four kids loose in a big outdoor space is sure to bring playground-worthy mayhem and graveyard-unworthy games like Zombie vs Zombie Hunter (save it for home, kids!). So in addition to reminding them about the ground rules (no loud voices, running, climbing gravestones), we’ve come up with our own bag of tricks to keep them engaged and entertained.
The most basic of all is helping kids search for their own name or middle name. Tweak as needed, especially if one of your kids has an unusually common name. My son William, whose name seems to have been equally trendy throughout the past three centuries, inevitably declares himself the winner. So, we usually go straight to the next game.
Search for unusual names and then choose your top pick to replace your own name for the rest of the visit. I love this activity, since it encourages even my most reluctant reader to join in. Plus, I get to call my kids names like Lucretia and Horatio for the rest of the day.
Identify family trees. Family plots within a cemetery can be interesting, since they allow the kids an opportunity to identify relationships and branches of a family tree. The plots with several generations can be challenging, and more fun too.
Math, In Disguise
Search for the oldest grave, calculate the ages of the deceased, or find people who shared your birthday. It’s a great way to practice numbers and counting. Also, my younger kids like to place wild flowers on the graves of children, which they can usually identify easily by the smaller gravestones.
A History Lesson
If you have time for some planning, you may want to brush up on the history of the cemetery and identify prominent figures who have been laid to rest there. Websites like Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries, offer not only a database of historic cemeteries and gravestones, but also a history of the grounds.
I usually read up on a few of the more interesting grave sites beforehand, and then the kids help me hunt for them. Researching the grounds can be fun too. During a recent visit to Burial Place Hill in Rehoboth, we learned that before the cemetery was established the land had been used by Minutemen as a signal station during the Revolutionary War.
Plan a visit to Massachusetts’ Most Haunted Town (for ‘tweens, teens, and adventurous parents)
Rehoboth is considered by many to be one of the most haunted towns in Massachusetts, and its numerous historic graveyards serve as the backdrop for many ghostly legends.
Village Cemetery, located at the intersection of Pond Street and Bay State Road, is said to be home to an ill-tempered ghost named “Ephraim”. Ephraim, an elderly man dressed in 18th century clothing, reportedly tries to scare visitors away by sneering and shouting foul language. Other visitors have have claimed to see Ephraim in the Southwest corner of the cemetery alternately laughing and sobbing over a gravestone.
Old Ephraim isn’t the only ghostly ghoul in Rehoboth. Palmer River Burial Ground on Lake Street is said to be haunted by a young boy wearing 19th century clothing, who walks among the gravestones. There have also been reports of a phantom coffin, which appears and disappears in the center of the graveyard.
My 13 year old begged me to bring him to both of these sites in hopes of having his own ghostly adventure. I finally gave in and we headed out to Rehoboth armed with a camera and our list of hotspots. Unfortunately for my son, it was an uneventful day (phew!).
Rehoboth is also home to a gravestone deemed by Ripley’s Believe It or Not to have America’s wordiest epitaph. Found in Burial Place Hill on Peckham Street, the gravestone of Lt. Gov. Simeon Martin has a remarkable 405 hand-carved words…believe it or not.
A full list of burial grounds in Massachusetts’ most haunted town is available on the Old Rehoboth website.
If I had to pick one local family favorite, it would be Juniper Hill Cemetery in Bristol. Located at 24 Sherry Avenue, this 22 acre Gothic Revival style cemetery was laid out in 1857 but includes many older graves which have been moved from various locations. Juniper Hill has become one of our favorite spots, with its rambling clusters of historic stones, dramatic weeping trees, and gorgeous gothic architecture. It’s secluded and quiet, and a perfect spot for a walk on an autumn day.
Our favorite not-so-local spot is Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain. Within its’ 275 acres of Victorian landscape design, it offers endless winding paths, rugged hills, and scenic vistas. In the heart lies Lake Hibiscus, an ornamental pond surrounded by several contemporary arts pieces including the very comfortable and kid-friendly “Poetry Chairs” by artist Mitch Ryerson.
Forest Hills is the burial site of many prominent historic and cultural figures, such as playwright Eugene O’Neill, poet E.E. Cummings, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. In addition, there are currently twenty-four works of sculpture on temporary display throughout the grounds (maps and artists statements available at the main gate).
It’s possible to spend an entire day at Forest Hills without having time to explore every nook and cranny, although most kids don’t have the stamina to handle a whole day of cemetery sightseeing. I recommend spending a few leisurely hours at Forest Hills, then refueling with an ice cream at JP Licks (659 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain).
Gravestone Rubbing 101
Important Note: The first step to making gravestone rubbings is to make sure they are permitted in the cemetery you plan on visiting. There is a contact list on The Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Commission website, and I encourage you to email the appropriate Commission member prior to your visit.
Once you have permission, all you need for gravestone rubbings is tracing paper or newsprint, large size crayons or charcoal, and masking tape.
Select only stones that are in good condition. Make sure there are not any cracks or evidence of previous breaks as to avoid further damage. Tape the paper to the stone and begin rubbing gently from the inside outward, using the long side or the crayon or charcoal. When the rubbing is complete, roll up your paper for safe keeping. Don’t forget to take all your trash with you.
In past years, we’ve hung our rubbings in the front windows of our home. They make great Halloween decorations.
- Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries
- The Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Commission
- Rhode Island Cemeteries Database
- Old Rehoboth Cemeteries
- Forest Hills Cemetery
Having grown up in Southeastern Massachusetts, Jaci chose the Ocean State to raise her family after stints on the West Coast, Southern Florida, and a few cities in between. Jaci is a freelance writer and part-time researcher in the nonprofit world, although spends most of her time as a chauffeur, activities coordinator, and conflict mediator for her four children. Her hobbies include combing thrift stores for treasures, competing in triathlons, and surfing at local and not so local beaches with her husband and kids.
Jaci also blogs here: http://spiderbyte.typepad.com/