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Gerald Carbone: Leave RI’s Historic Gravestones Alone!

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Rhode Island's historical cemeteries are valuable glimpses into our state's past, and should be treated as such.

GoLocalProv is delighted to announce that award-winning journalist Gerald Carbone has joined GoLocalProv as a weekly MINDSETTER. Look for his observations and illuminations of the Rhode Island landscape every Saturday.

Good gravestones are like books. They tell stories, they endure, and it’s hard to choose a favorite. High on my list of the all-time best gravestones is the slate marker in East Providence’s Newman Cemetery inscribed to “Mrs. Sarah Semple.” She died in August 1776; one month after America defiantly declared its independence. The inscription on her slate grave bears witness to the hardships of that time:

She was born, and lived in Boston, till the 21st of April, 1775, when by reason of the distressed state of that town, she left her native place and now rests where the voice of the oppressor, is not heard, and where the wicked cease from troubling.

The carver actually used the “long S,” which makes S’s look like F’s as in “the difftreffed ftate of that town.”

Think back to what was happening around Boston in mid-April of `75, when Sarah Semple fled. (“Listen my children and you will hear/of the midnight ride of Paul Revere”). She died a refugee of the American Revolution, displaced from British-occupied Boston.

Straight to the point

Another great gravestone from the Revolutionary War stands in Providence’s North Burial Ground. It tells of a Rhode Islander who died on Aquidneck Island in the Battle of Rhode Island, one of the largest actions of that war. This stone is unusual in its simplicity–there are no carvings, just these stark words:

In Memory of Mr. Obediah Brown Jr., Who Fell Bravely Fighting for the Liberties of his Country, On Rhode-Island, Aug. 29th 1778 in the 36th Year of His Age.

Handle with care

Both gravestones are classic late 1700s markers, carved from slate in “tripartite symmetry,” the shape of two sloping shoulders and a head. Both stones provide a tangible connection to the American Revolution available almost nowhere else on Earth.

Sadly, both stones bear irreparable scars cut into their slate not by vandals but by landscapers, the very people entrusted with maintaining the graveyards where these stones stand.

Under state law, any person who “shall willfully and maliciously destroy, mutilate, deface, cover over, [or] injure” any “tomb, monument, gravestone” faces imprisonment of not less than one year, and a fine of $3,000. Yet, cemetery landscapers routinely “deface” and “injure” grave markers that endured unblemished for centuries, until they met up with modern-day landscaping equipment.

A half-dozen scars slice across Sarah Semple’s stone, cut by a weed whacker or other trimming tool.

In North Burial Ground, landscaping scars slice across Obediah Brown’s grave, cutting through where the letters read “On Rhode-Island,” commemorating this soldier’s death 235 years ago this week.

What can be done?

Pegee Malcolm, chairwoman of the Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission, is aware of the problem, but says it is hard to solve. There are 3,500 historic cemeteries in Rhode Island, most of which are maintained by volunteers who mean well. “We have dos and don’ts,” Malcolm says. “We could add to the list to be careful around the headstones. That would be a good point. Just don’t weed whack around the headstones.”

The Commission’s raison d’être is “to make recommendations to the general assembly relative to historical cemeteries.” A voluntary ban on weed whackers around headstones seems like a common sense approach, but often, common sense is not at all common. The Commission should draft a law banning the use of weed whackers at historical cemeteries. A mandatory year in prison is too high a penalty, but requiring landscapers in a rush to bear the costs of grave restoration would create a fine deterrent.

Rhode Island’s historical cemeteries offer a rare, tangible connection to our shared heritage. We can, and must, protect that.

Gerald M. Carbone is the author of Nathanael Greene, and was a journalist for twenty-five years, mostly for the Providence Journal. He has won two of American journalism's most prestigious prizes--the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island.


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