Centuries-old family graveyards hidden in plain sight
By Cameron Johnson, Multimedia Editor
Slowly, a white tent rose in the middle of a field. It was the afternoon before the first football game under the lights in the University of New Hampshire’s history, and the UNH ‘Cat Pack was setting up for the rush of student fans who would swarm the field later that evening.
They have everything that excited football fans need: grilled chicken, cold drinks and an open space to enjoy it in. That night, however, there would be some unexpected guests at this party: Joseph and Mary White.
Unfortunately for Mr. and Mrs. White, they are, quite literally, dead.
Just to the left of the big white tent, on a little hill abutting the tennis court, is the gravesite for the White family. Set off by a few stone columns and some wrapped in wrought iron bars, the twin graves sit flat on the ground, nearly unnoticeable unless one is standing right in front of them. They have been peacefully resting under Boulder Field for over 137 years, only 11 years after the founding of the university itself.
Mr. and Mrs. White are in good company: There are 79 other individual familial gravesites spread throughout the town of Durham.
“Prior to the early-to-mid 1800s there were no formal cemeteries — people were buried on their farms,” Chair of the Cemetery Committee Craig Seymour said. “Some families of means built formal burial grounds and marked individual graves with stone markers or monuments.” They range in size from a single grave, such as the one located outside of the field house, and upwards of 10 or more graves. Some show the tragedy of early life in America: such as the graves of five children from the same family, ages two to 13, who all died months apart likely from an outbreak of scarlet fever.
Eight of these graveyards are even located on UNH property and are maintained by the university.
The town of Durham has, for a long time, maintained a municipal cemetery. “After towns and villages began to form, the state passed laws that required towns to maintain a ‘town cemetery’ — probably for health reasons,” Seymour said. “Durham’s first official town cemetery is located behind Town Hall. The ‘new’ town cemetery is located out on Old Concord Road, just past the Route 4 overpass and Technology Drive. It was started in the 1930s and is still active today.”
But these old family graveyards are still around, and their continued maintenance is crucial for their longevity: Many graves have already been destroyed by erosion or falling debris.
Luckily, some of the graveyards have trusts established for them, providing a fund that generates interest, which can be used to help repair the sites.
“There are two types of graveyards: trusted graveyards and unfunded graveyards. Trusted ones have money on them; the family has said we want to have the town take care of this graveyard so they’ve given the town a certain amount of money,” Director of Public Works Michael Lynch said.
There is one problem: these trusts were established in the 1700s and 1800s, and inflation has made many of the trusts essentially worthless.
“The money made available is dollars [from the interest]. Often I’ll look at the availability that the trustees give me, and some of them are 79 cents [or] $1.42,” Lynch said.
The town still gives Lynch some money to maintain the trusted and untrusted graveyards.
“In my public works budget I have a trusted-graveyard line item, so I can spend town money, so we can do work, so that I can send a crew out to cut up a tree that’s fallen in the graveyard from a storm or something like that,” Lynch said.
“Once we get to the end of the year, I send the trustees a bill that then they pay back to the town. We always spend more money than what’s on that bill. There just isn’t enough money in the trusts.”
Because of their locations deep in the woods, some of these graveyards are very difficult to get to.
“Some of them are very remote. There are eight or 10 of them with no trail system associated with them, so we are literally trekking through the woods,” Lynch said.
The last time any record was taken of the names and inscriptions on the headstones was back in the 1970s. The Durham Historic Association, led by Curator Phillip A. Wilcox, meticulously inspected all 79 gravesites and recorded each name, date, inscription and location of all of the graves.
Since then, some of the graves have been destroyed. Eventually, all of the graves will erode away, but for now they stand stoically in their places as they have been for hundreds of years, a reminder of an old Durham that once was.