Monday, October 7, 2019

Tombstones Tell A Story by Eileen O'Finlan

My mom will be 93 in October. Feeling her abilities diminishing, she decided she wanted one last trip to her hometown of Bennington, Vermont. So in August we made the three hour drive north for a long weekend. There were several places Mom especially wanted to visit – places that had meaning to her from her youth – the town library, her old high school, the clock in the town center, the former Hotel Putnam that, among other things, once housed her uncle’s pharmacy, and the Old First Church. She also wanted to visit the graves of her parents, brothers, and other relatives.

I’ve always had a fascination for cemeteries so the burying grounds are of particular interest to me. Depending on their age and condition, they may be creepy, haunting, peaceful, or beautiful. In any case, they draw me in. The tombstones themselves are a special source of beguilement. I love studying about the correlation between the change in tombstone engravings and the layout of cemeteries and the changes in societal views of death and the afterlife between the 17th and 19th centuries. These are most fully on display when a cemetery spans centuries as does the one at the Old First Church.

There is much more to read in a tombstone than just the inscription. The shape, size, and substance of the stone and the images engraved on them give powerful hints as to their age and the outlook of those buried beneath them.

In our Bennington travels we visited two final resting places. One was the burying ground owned by and adjacent to the Old First Church. The Church’s congregation was first organized in 1762 and the current church was built in 1805. Its extensive burial grounds are the interment site of soldiers from the American Revolutionary War, both American and British, as well as Bennington’s earliest mayors, Vermont’s early governors, and other prominent citizens.

In one section, the four sides of a stone pillar tell the stories of the burying ground’s Revolutionary era inhabitants.

One side of pillar honoring Revolutionary soldiers buried here

American Soldiers believed buried in Old First Church burying grounds

Hessian (Brunswick) Soldiers believed buried in Old First Church Burying Ground

David Redding - Executed Loyalist

Details regarding Redding's Execution

It is also the final resting place of the great poet, Robert Frost and many of his family members. Fittingly, an elegant birch tree stands watch by his grave. Visitors are invited to reflect on our attitudes about death through the medium his poem, “In A Disused Graveyard”.

Grave site of Robert Frost and Family Members

Mom and my cousin, Patty, reflect near the birch tree at Robert Frost's Grave

Frost's Poem "In A Disused Graveyard"

Closer to our own time period, was our stop at Park Lawn Cemetery where my grandparents, uncles, and other relatives are buried. Compared with older tombstones, I find the more modern ones a bit boring – no disrespect to the dead intended. It’s just that most contain a name, dates of birth and death, and not much else. Unless one expends an enormous amount of money, it’s likely the only viable option, so I quite understand. It’s just that it feels cold and uninteresting to me. However, I did see one grave marker in this cemetery that told a compelling story. It is pictured below.

Grave Marker of William Halford Maguire

The inscription reads:
William Halford Maguire
1911 – 1945
Lt. Col. U.S. Army
West Point ‘32

Chief of Staff, Davao, Mindanao, P.I. when Japan attacked, 1941
Japanese prisoner of War 2 ½ years.
Survivor of three shipwrecks
Subjected to extreme brutality of Japanese captors.
Died Feb. 9, 1945 in Tokyo, Japan, weighing less than 59 pounds
Among awards: Silver Star and Legion of Merit
1933 – Married Ruth Felder, San Antonio, TX.
Children: Mollie Maguire Qvale
William Halford Maguire, Jr.

Imagine all the inspiration for a story to be gleaned from this one grave marker!

As it happens, I am able to add a bit to this story as the above marks the grave of my mother’s cousin. Hal, as she knew him, was captured and forced to walk the torturous Bataan Death March. The fact that he had dwindled to 59 pounds is astonishing in any case, but even more so when one learns that he was well over six feet tall.

Mom remembers Hal as a good-natured fellow whose company she enjoyed. Beyond the grave marker and the little my mom has been able to add, I know nothing about Hal or his life and death. Though it would have to be highly fictionalized, his story is certainly one worth telling.

As writers, we never know when inspiration will strike. Often it comes from the most unexpected places. But if you let the tombstones talk to you, you may come away with the bones of great story. All the better, perhaps, if the story is that of a person who resides in your heart and memory or that of a loved one.


  1. Cemeteries are fascinating places. As a child, one of my elderly relatives was caretaker fora cemetary. What I remember most about those visits were her dozens of ceramic Boston terriers, Hope your new book is moving forward.

  2. Lovely, Eiieen. Thank you for honoring your mom in so many ways. My parents designed their gravestone. Dad loved genealogy and both his Irish and his French Canadian roots. He's buried under the Charbonneau stone which reads "in America since 1659." He once asked me if I'd like to be buried there in the family plot. I said sure, to which he cautioned "...I only bought 8 places...remember, first come, first served!"

  3. I've walked more than a few cemeteries, and I agree it is interesting to see the changes from the Revolutionary War sandstones to the garden cemeteries of the Victorian era. Good story and best wishes for your new book.

  4. Great post, Eileen. Very interesting way to research history.


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