As part of Writing Studio Director Colleen Michaels’ recent audio-tour project, This is the Place, Aristeo chose to talk about the Abbot Street Cemetery. The original audio recording was expanded into the longer, written piece published by Historic Beverly, for whom Aristeo is interning. It’s reproduced in full below:
A View from the Ancient Burial Ground
By Audrey Aristeo
After I moved to Beverly to attend Montserrat College of Art, I began taking regular walks in a loop from my apartment on Hale Street, through the Beverly Common, down Cabot Street, up Abbott to Monument Square, then crossing back over to Hale. Very soon I noticed an odd feature of this route – the Abbott Street Burial Ground, tucked away between the back of the First Baptist Church, the Fire Station, the White Whale, and the rear of the police station on the other side of Abbott Street, which cleaves the yard into two unequal parcels. It is squished into this space awkwardly like it doesn’t belong, though clearly, it has been here longer than each one of the structures around it. Each time I passed, I felt compelled to stop and investigate. Thus began my persistent love of a tired and lonely resting place.
With the intent to make a book of drawings highlighting my favorite aspects of the cemetery, I photographed every headstone in February of 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic sent me from school to my home in Pennsylvania and made me unable to complete the project. Once I returned later that summer, I attended an official cemetery tour, during which Lucy Keller, Museum Educator at Historic Beverly, mentioned that the historical society needed help with an up-to-date inventory. I expressed immediate interest. I learned quickly that there was a lot of work to be done; but already I had a kinship with this place, and felt a need to complete that work.
Small and encroached upon from every cardinal direction, and in nearly every decade since its establishment, the Abbott St. Burial Ground holds a wealth of sad secrets and evidence of long-standing neglect. The decision of the town aldermen in 1868 to pave Abbott Street through its middle was certainly one of the most grievous encroachments. Not only is there no known documentation of who may be left under the road, but local awareness of the event has nearly disappeared with the passage of time.
At the back of the White Whale, the former Salvation Army, and Universalist Chapel before that, a staired porch leads to a back door that was once a window. One of four supports is a thick wooden stake that is driven through the grave of two-month-old Susana Hardy. She might be difficult to spot, in amongst the overgrowth and persistent bags of trash that show up mysteriously underneath the porch. I have cleared the area multiple times, climbing under to pull out rotting garbage and dig out her marker so it can be read:
DUGhter OF mr
SePtember y ͤ 25ᵗʰ
As an intern to Historic Beverly, I have been tasked with the cemetery’s inventory — a complete one, the first in several decades — as well as the creation of a new map for visitors. The most recent map of the Abbott St. Burial Ground was created in 1937, over 80 years ago. In that time, many stones have been moved, knocked over, grown over, broken, or have completely disappeared. It is my job to figure out a number of things: which stones are missing; which ones are still around; whether those stones’ locations are still accurately reflected on the map; if they are not, making note; capturing and labeling photographs of every head- and foot-stone in the yard; and keeping a new, accurate spreadsheet of each individual, their year of birth, date and year of death, age at death, and the inscription on the stone, down to every quirk in carving or spelling. It has been tedious but exhilarating work, as I know that my efforts to be tirelessly accurate in my record contribute positively to a history of a place that has, for a long time, not seen that kind of effort or care.
Each stone is a work of art, each visual motif and carving style placing them against the backdrop of 17th-, 18th-, and early 19th-century America. Many of these people were common folks, people with names we no longer hear (though many much more locally famous names are seen here as well), people who had lives and loves, believed things, wanted things, and experienced great hardship and grief. We who live now would do well to pay our attention and respect — and remember death. The following inscription appears on several stones throughout the yard:
Come look on me, as you paſs by,
As you are now, ſo once was I,
As I am now, ſo you muſt be,
Prepare for death & follow me.
The ancient cemetery on Abbott St. is unique and beautiful, and I am drawn there by a love of people, of place, and what time does to people and places. Historic Beverly is looking into preservation services that may help us keep this place beautiful for generations to come. In the meantime, if you’re around, I encourage you to step into its weathered quietude, for a moment of rest.