By E. Ashley Rooney
Photos by Jan van Steenwijk
Shawsheen Cemetery is a beautiful pastoral spot in Bedford. It’s a lovely place to walk, especially as spring appears with its bluebells, primroses, and violets. I have often walked there, marveling at the historic graves. Recently, a friend pointed out Greg Melville’s (BHS ’88) book, Over my Dead Body, Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries.
Greg Melville is an author, adventure journalist, veteran, and English and writing instructor at the United States Naval Academy. Before college, Greg worked as a summer employee for the Bedford Department of Public Works. His main job was to mow the grass at the cemetery and help dig graves for the occasional funeral.
Begun in 1731, the Old Burying Ground on Springs Road had been the town’s only cemetery for 118 years. As one document stated, the “great increase of the population from that time rendered that expedient insufficient for the purpose, as new graves not infrequently occupied the place of old ones.” A prominent citizen offered the town $100 if it would purchase a more commodious area that could be laid out in lots for families. In a Town Meeting warrant dated March 6, 1848, the town voted to do so and to set up a cemetery committee. On Sept. 4, 1849, the Shawsheen Cemetery was consecrated. There is little information to be found about the early days of the cemetery, but in walking through it, you learn a good deal of that history.
From its two entrances, the cemetery ascends to the burial area, which lies on the peak of a hill. As Greg points out, Shawsheen reveals “itself in chronological order. The oldest, most garden-like sections come first, just past the first entrance, residing on a hillside where the light is dulled beneath a canopy of mature hardwoods and white pines. The headstones there sprout from the ground like rows of crooked teeth, their etchings worn by the endless cycle of harsh New England winters. The family names on these surprisingly artful monuments often match the ones attached to the town’s parks, schools, and historic homes.”
The family burial plots along the driveways of the older area are marked by granite posts and contain one or more monuments. Victorian and later classical designs adorn them. The 19th-century gravestones favored images of urns and weeping willow trees and can feature poetry or scripture. One of the grander monuments is the Hayden tomb. Hayden, a chemist and pharmacist, was the owner of the Bedford Springs Hotel and the New York Pharmaceutical Company on Sweetwater Ave. A 1906 burial inventory states that there are forty-five Civil War veterans, two War of 1812 veterans, one from the Mexican War, and two who were involved in the American Revolution and moved from the Old Burying Ground. Since the Bedford Veterans Administration Hospital opened in 1928, Shawsheen Cemetery has become the final resting spot for many veterans.
Greg comments on how the cemetery goes from the towering pines to the meadowy late nineteenth century to the maple-shaded era of the Spanish flu pandemic, World Wars I and II. There is an “allee” of pines leading to the more recent sections, where the trees begin to disappear. The older part of Shawsheen Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
Greg’s summer employment at Shawsheen Cemetery led him to visit many cemeteries, places that have mirrored the passing eras in history but have also shaped it. And it all began here in Bedford.