Cemetery Tripping in Massachusetts and Rhode Island

Situated in the Old Administration Building of the historic Tewksbury Hospital — a 19th century almshouse and sanitarium — the Public Health Museum is a non-profit educational and cultural center featuring a variety of exhibits and programs ranging in topics from disease epidemics to the American eugenics movement.

Tewksbury State Hospital cemetery, Massachusetts

Earlier this October, the Museum conducted the season’s last historical walking tour of the Tewksbury Hospital Campus — an event which, though we endeavored to attend on multiple occasions, slipped by us this year.

But that didn’t stop us from visiting the Tewksbury Hospital cemetery on our own accord this week. Consisting of over 10,000 graves of the hospitals’ destitute deceased dating as far back as the 1850s, this burial ground is divided into two separate woodland plots a fair distance from one another. With the sun setting fast on the day of our visit, we opted only to see the East Street plot nearest the hospital grounds, called “The Pines.”

The Pines Cemetery is as decrepit as it is sprawling, and is perhaps larger than any other potter’s field we’ve seen in Massachusetts. A little off the beaten path, there among a tangled grove of mature trees and just barely visible above the detritus of the forest floor, rusting iron stakes jut out of the earth as far as the eye can see. With each step deeper into the woods, the low-lying, numbered markers seem to endlessly appear underfoot; some sunken so deep they stand barely inches above the ground, others standing nearly knee-high, misplaced from their original foundation and replanted in the ground. Walk deeper still, and you might find a hand-carved wooden crucifix, or a mysterious headstone bearing the only names to appear in the entirety of the graveyard. The somberness and antiquity of the atmosphere is practically palpable.

Visiting cemeteries like The Pines at Tewksbury Hospital never fails to be a fascinating and eye-opening experience; one which can be had even closer to home at Rhode Island’s own state cemeteries for the almshouse, the insane asylum, and the Ladd School. But these are not the only “paupers cemeteries” in the state. The Warwick Poor Farm’s graveyard remains a fairly prominent feature of the Town Park, and recent research by the Ladd School Historical Society even suggests that some of the Ladd School’s earliest residents in Exeter were buried by the state in other cemeteries as far away as the town of Cranston — our next stop this Halloween weekend.

Halloween means different things to different people; and to some people, it’s believed to be the day during which the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest. This year the holiday falls on a Saturday, providing the perfect opportunity for all adventurous spirits to explore historic cemeteries in their community, for an educational and cultural experience like no other. And if you’re one of those adventurous spirits, maybe we’ll see you out there.

[originally published October 2015]