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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: A burial ground for the dead and a park for the living

Special to The New Hampshire Union Leader

May 13. 2013 5:52PM

The Valley Cemetery opened for business shortly after its dedication on July 5, 1841. The first burial took place that month - "Mary J. - child of Steven and Sarah Baldwin."

With $234 in donations, the citizens committee overseeing the cemetery built a fence, trimmed some trees and began laying out walkways. The paths in the interior of the cemetery were designed to follow the contours of the land, while those on the outer edges provided a border for the property, and three east/west avenues were created on the southeast corner of the land where the surface was flat.

The town began appropriating money yearly for the adornment and maintenance of the cemetery. Records from 1842 show an expenditure of $287.61 for "the Valley," as the cemetery was then known. This included $3 to pay Stephen Gilman for his surveying work and the remainder was expended for additional fencing.

Town officials seemed particularly concerned about how bodies would be moved to the cemetery, so that year Manchester had a special hearse carriage built for town use, and bought harnesses and other gear for the horses (including a whip). This, plus housing for the vehicle, cost $400.

Efforts to sculpt the undeveloped woodland into a manicured garden cemetery continued. The forested areas were thinned out, and ornamental trees were planted. In 1846 a thorn hedge was installed on two sides of the property.

By 1856 most of the burial plots had been sold. Historian C.E. Potter wrote in his history of Manchester published that year, ".they continued the same committee in office for a series of years, thus enabling them to carry out their plan of laying out, and embellishing the avenues, paths and alleys, which was conceived in much good taste. Through its center, passes the clear and limpid Mile Brook, now confined in its meandering channel; but formerly so wild in its movements as to have worn a deep gorge, its sides now swarded (turfed) over, and its bottom a level meadow, affording an abundance of natural grass.Paths have been constructed down the sides of this gorge to the meadow, in such a manner as shall take the best from the natural features of the place; while two or three rustic bridges, and here and there a fountain, alone show that art has been brought to the assistance of nature, in beautifying this resting place of the dead."

Rates were set for the purchase of burial plots and for related services. In 1852 the first city tomb was built on the west side of the cemetery, to provide a place to store bodies in the winter. The caskets would be brought out for proper burial when the ground thawed. In 1888 a larger tomb was built, carved into the banking along the northeast end of the cemetery. A February 1892 newspaper article gave the updated rates for the use of the tomb, "For the body of each person above 10 years of age deposited therein one month or less $3, and for the succeeding five months fifty cents per month; provided, however, for every body that remains in the tomb after the fifteenth day of May in any year the charge shall be twenty-five cents per day for each day thereafter."

The Valley Cemetery was not only a place to contemplate life and death, but it was also a beautiful park where respite could be found from the trials of daily life.
It was a popular spot for Sunday carriage rides and picnics. There was trouble in paradise, however, as some of the plot owners became overly attached to their little pieces of land. Some families were using their plots primarily as personal gardens, and their horticultural projects were getting out of hand. Some owners were chopping down trees they didn't like, or planting new ones according to their own tastes, without permission.

In 1859 the cemetery committee was compelled to develop strict rules. This didn't stop another problem, however - the theft of flowers. The temptation to bring home a few fresh blooms was too great for some. In fall 1861 a woman and her children were detained in the city marshal's office for this very offense.

Next week: A Valley Cemetery story, Eliza Eaton, mill girl.

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at


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