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Mark Hayward's City Matters: A game of stones in Manchester's cemeteries

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 30. 2013 7:25PM

TODAY BEING Halloween, we can expect graves and crypts across the state to start disgorging all sorts of ghosts and vampires this evening, right about the time Trick or Treat starts.

And Manchester will do its part to supply legions of undead who will drift and plod into our nightmares.

We can do so because the Queen City lays claim to 15 places of eternal rest within its borders. Some are hidden away among oak and pine trees, their centuries-old headstones chipped and leaning at such an angle you'd suspect levitation to be at play.

Others — notably the prominent Pine Grove Cemetery and Mount Calvary Cemetery — stretch into the hundreds of acres and could easily accommodate the city's dead from this century, if not the next.

So on Halloween, this spookiest of days, what follows is a guide to some of the city's resting places.

The spookiest. By far, it is Valley Cemetery, located right in the middle of the city and as much a museum as a cemetery. It has everything Wes Craven would want were he filming a movie in Manchester: crypts dug into hillsides; iron gates; gravestones with statues of long-gowned virgins; granite stairways that lead to a dark and intimidating valley. The smell of death (or at least fetid stormwater) lingers, thanks to the city sewer system's outfall, which runs beneath the valley.

Many prominent historical figures rest in Valley. The marker of the Smyth family is the most impressive. Its mausoleum sits atop a cliff, and its bleached stone looks like the Parthenon.

"It's turned white because we have to keep spraying the graffiti off it," said Judith Aron, cemetery supervisor for the city.

A trip to the cemetery always brings a surprise, such as Tuesday, when seven holiday-confused wild turkeys (Thanksgiving is a month away) pecked along the grounds.

Given its center city location, the scare factor is real. If ghosts don't get you, muggers might.

Most remote. No iron fencing or vaulted obelisk mark the Moore Cemetery. Rather, it has just a few gravemarkers — mostly flat headstones and footstones — and several of them have been toppled and are slowly sinking back into the forest-dampened soil.

The cemetery is at the end of a 300-foot path that starts at the parking lot of Pine Island Park playground. The cemetery is atop an embankment that drops down to Brown Avenue, but you can't see it from the road unless you know where to look.

Most peaceful (and safest). It's likely my Catholic faith, but the Old St. Augustin Cemetery on South Beech Street seems to have everything. (Most Catholic cemeteries in the Manchester area are divided in two: Old St. Augustin; New St. Augustin; Old St. Joseph; New St. Joseph (which is actually in Bedford). Perhaps it's a Biblical thing — Old Testament, New Testament).

Old St. Augustin is the smallest among the Catholic cemeteries. Its land has a gentle slope, and the tops of its headstones rise and fall with the slope. Tall pines ring the exterior, and the few interior trees don't overpower the setting. It has a small chapel, and religious symbols on many of the gravestones bespeak the nature of its hallowed ground.

I asked the bishop's spokesman — does that hallowed ground mean no vampires or zombies will crawl out of Old St. Augustin tonight?

"I would put that at 100 percent assurance," said Pat McGee, the spokesman of the Diocese. "It's not going to happen."

Weirdest placement. When our time comes to die, most of us expect to be in a quiet spot, surrounded by trees and bushes, a quiet road that leads up to an entrance gate. Then don't make plans for the Merrill Cemetery. It's located right on South Willow Street, sandwiched between the Mall of New Hampshire and a Valvoline Oil quick-change garage.

The last burial there was in 2004. Aron said the city buries people in small cemeteries only after families prove ownership of a family burial ground and that the deceased has a right to be buried there.

The hustle and bustle of South Willow Street may be to the liking of the cemetery's most famous interment. Commander Nutt, a man who is said to have stood at only 2 feet at adulthood, is buried there. Beginning in the 1860s, he toured with P.T. Barnum.

Best inscription: Gravemarkers are the best part of cemeteries. Visually, the most impressive are from the turn of the century.

The Huse Cemetery on Mammoth Road — believed to be the oldest in the city — predates such ostentation. But its plain headstones include poetic inscriptions. Some mourn the death of a young child or faithful spouse. Notable is the message on the stone of Elijah Flat, who died Feb. 23, 1829, at the age of 81. "Death is a debt to nature due, I've paid the debt and so must you."

The modern ones: Cemeteries track the history of the city. Small cemeteries were in far-flung corners where they popped up amid a small settlement or church. But once Manchester started getting big, so did its cemeteries. Pine Grove entails more than 250 acres; about 180 are developed. Mount Calvary has 215 acres, about 75 developed.

Pine Grove is garden-like. It has a fountain. Its maple trees still have a lot of color. And its foot paths meander among sections so numerous it's like driving through a Bedford subdivision.

"It's calm and peaceful," said Betty Sabean, a retired West High School science teacher who was walking the footpaths Wednesday. "And you feel better when you leave." (I guess that's because you can.)

The older portions of the cemetery resemble Valley Cemetery, with obelisks, statues and intricate sculpture of lilies, cherubs or goblets. The newer portion of the cemetery has gravestones of the same height, lined up in straight rows.

It's as if these mega-cemeteries have a city zoning code, which they kind of do. Kevin Cody at Mount Calvary and Aron, the city cemetery supervisor, said their cemeteries have restrictions on the size of monuments. If you want to erect a big marker, you have to purchase bigger lots.

"We don't want them to overshadow other lots," Cody said.

Miscellaneous. The most depopulated cemetery is Hall Cemetery, found in a very residential area of Young Street in east Manchester. About a dozen headstones are clumped into the south end lot of the lot. A few more are scattered around it.

The densest cemetery is the Hebrew Cemetery, located on South Beech Street. Stones there are probably about a foot apart. Best trees — red pines with spooky, craggy limbs — are on Stowell Cemetery off Bodwell Road.

The not cemetery cemetery is Stark Park, where the Revolutionary War general and his family are buried.

Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and He can be reached at

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