Through the Veil
Our history lies within these hills and dales––Berkshire area cemeteries
Frequently visited, the Stockbridge Cemetery reveals a historic past. Sixteen of its 1,644 plots are for notable people.
Photo by Matt Petricone
Edgar Allan Poe wrote that fear of cemeteries stems from a feeling that “the boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague.”
But many Berkshire cemeteries are places of great beauty and serenity. Maple Street Cemetery, in the heart of downtown Adams, is one of the most picturesque. It has a perfect view of Mount Greylock, so near that the beacon on that high peak casts shadows among tombstones amidst the dark of night. The oldest of the cemetery’s 4,113 graves dates from the early 1800s.
Others with views that surely must comfort the bereaved include Monterey’s Corashire Cemetery. Nearing its 200th anniversary, with 1,241 graves, Corashire provides a sweeping panorama south to Mount Everett and beyond. Sprawling Southview Cemetery in North Adams has a section for veterans. Ringed with green hillsides, with the aroma of wild thyme, it has 8,167 graves, some from the early 19th century. Pittsfield Cemetery is the county’s largest, with over 10,000 burial plots. Tyringham Cemetery, immaculately groomed in a pastoral setting, has 1,247 graves.
In contrast, many Berkshire burial sites are scruffy and overgrown. Some tell stories of great struggle and tragedy. The Bush Cemetery, with 231 graves along a partially abandoned gravel road deep in the woods of Windsor, seems bypassed by time. Tombstones are broken or illegible, though the cemetery is known to have been founded in 1798. Veterans’ graves ranging from the American Revolution to the Korean War are decorated with flags, and some plots have fresh flowers. While a more centrally located cemetery is available, a few still prefer to be interred in this serene woodland, where the most recent burial was in 2015.
Several other Berkshire cemeteries are even less accessible than Windsor’s. On the eastern side of Becket, the Harris Family plot is covered by brush and nearly forgotten. Over a mile of walking is required to see this plot of five graves dating from 1777. It speaks to the common human fear of abandonment. Others that recall tragic endings are the John Spoor Smallpox Gravesite in Sheffield and the Hoosac Tunnel Central Shaft memorial, a mass grave containing the mangled bodies of 13 workers who died in a bloody 1867 explosion and fire.
The comprehensive website findagrave.com has identified 285 burial sites in Berkshire County’s 32 municipalities. Twenty-three of these sites have a single grave and another 32 contain between two and ten graves.
The county’s most famous burial place is known simply as the Stockbridge Cemetery. Sixteen of its 1,644 plots are for notable people. Norman Rockwell is buried there, as are Cyrus West Field, David Dudley Field, Augustus Lukeman, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, Theodore Sedgwick, and Reinhold Niebuhr. The Sedgwick Pie, an unusual round plot within the cemetery, draws researchers from far and wide. Some plots are from the late 18th century.
Generally considered to be the county’s first cemetery for European settlers is the Old Burial Grounds in Mount Washington. The earliest legible gravestone is that of Abigail Benjamin in 1772, but there are other unmarked plots that could be older. There are about 130 graves in this stark, out-of-the-way resting place for which records are incomplete.
The most heart-rending epitaphs in any cemetery are those on children’s tombstones. Nina Dodge, buried at the Church on the Hill in Lenox, lived only 15 months and is memorialized in these lines: This bud was broken off just as it began to unfold in great beauty. Jesus wanted it.
Settlers from Cape Cod arriving in Lee in 1773 had scarcely had time to think of building homes, let alone cemeteries, when they were immediately faced with death. Matty Hendey, just 17 years old, fell from a wagon and struck her head on a stone. She was the first person buried in Fairmount Cemetery. But even the death of an adult can bring tears. At the Bow Wow Cemetery in Sheffield is the grave of Simon Willard, age 56, killed violently by lightning and remembered on his tombstone: Stop here ye gay and ponder what ye doeth, Blue Lightnings flew and swiftly seized my Breath. A more tremendous flash will fill the skies, When I and all that sleep in death shall rise.
Conquering our natural fear of death may be necessary before we can begin to appreciate the fascinating secrets cemeteries hold. A good place to start is with cemetery tours offered regularly by local historical societies. Or explore the groomed and not-so-groomed places of eternal rest, and be drawn in by the beauty and history before you.
Explore Our Storied Cemeteries
›› Stockbridge Library holds a Gravediggers Tour, 2 pm Sun., Oct 1. housatonicheritage.org
›› Berkshire Scenic Railway train rides with a tour of Southview Cemetery, 5:30 pm Sat., Oct 14 & 21. berkshirescenicrailway.org
›› Norman Rockwell Museum offers a Stockbridge Cemetery tour, 5 pm Thurs., Oct 26. nrm.org
›› Paul Marino collaborates with the Berkshire and North Adams historical societies to give tours. paulmarino.org
›› Stockbridge Cemetery tours are held monthly in warm months. stockbridgelibrary.org
›› Lee Historical Society offers two guided tours in May and September. See Facebook.