The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 29, 1999


Carlisle's changing burial practices

All Hallow's Eve is upon us; ghouls and goblins help us celebrate the American festival of the dead. Nearly every culture has one. Every culture and time seems to need one. We honor the dead on this night, and all year long, through our burial and funeral practices. Carlisle's have changed over time.

Early burials were family affairs: a washed body in a simple box, placed in a fenced corner of the family farm. Wildflower and butterflies were the daily witnesses of the dead. An increase in non-farm population created the need for a central burying ground, the town coming to own the site next to the present police station in the late 1780s.

By the 1820s the central burying ground was packed. The town waffled about for nearly a decade before the Town Meeting approved purchase of $25 for half an acre to enlarge the green family burial plot. Another five years later the Town Meeting approved a committee to actually lay out the plots and build a fence.

The invention of the mowing machine in the 1830s gave birth to the change in fashion: out went the wild flowers and in came clipped grass. From the middle of the 19th century, undertakers grew in their roles. Families engaged the undertaker for embalming, a more prevalent practice after the Civil War, to transport the body to the town cemetery, rather than to the next-door family plot. The undertaker's funeral home provided space for funerals when the family home was too small or not the desired funeral location. He could also be counted on to get all the formalities correct. The undertaker had a pall for all to use, could arrange for flowers, or sheaves of wheat (signifying a life cut off, a harvest taken.) He knew where to get caskets or find pallbearers. Thomas Green, from who's family plot the Green Cemetery grew, acted as undertaker from 1896 to 1927.

The wealth created by the industrial revolution, and the desire to show and share that wealth, led to the garden cemetery movement, best exemplified by Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Carlisle Town Meeting followed suit in 1866 by voting $150 for the front wall and gates to Green Cemetery. In 1870 another $150 was approved for ornamental trees and shrubs.

The next year, 1871, a cemetery committee was created for the purpose of supervising and caring for the Center Burying Ground and Green Cemetery. In later years cemetery commissioners were elected. Year after year Town Meeting records show approval for small improvements and enhancements. The graceful Green summerhouse was given for public enjoyment by Hannah Green at this time.

A review of town records provides a few glimpses of the burial practices earlier in this century. In 1902, for example, a single grave cost $3. A casket would cost $50 versus a pine box at $4. If family members wanted a casket covered with a robe during the ceremony, or decorated with flowers, the cost was an added $7.50 each. Additional adornments included a shroud and pillow for $11 altogether.

The years bracing the century's turn show generous private donations: the Richardson mausoleum, donated by a Green relative, in 1902; the Wilson chapel, 1907; the Heald Memorial gate, 1914.

By 1911 the cost of a grave site was up to $4, and a grave preparer would attend the funeral and prepare the body for $4. Casket prices ranged from $9 to $50, and hearse rental, plus a team of seven horses to pull it, cost $47.

The first record of embalming is from 1917 with a total funeral cost of $1,320, paid in four installments. Graves of that period often had a slab of slate covering the coffin before covering it with dirt ($48.) to prevent the grave from caving in when the coffin decayed.

During the 1920s, two lots could be purchased for $300 with an additional $100 added per grave for perpetual care.

Beginning in the 1950's or so, cemmomorial stone, the flat markers, became popular. They are less prone to freeze-thaw shifting, much easier to mow around, and certainly suffer fewer vandalism tragedies. Altogether they create more of an open-field effect than the tradional gravestones-in-a row appearance that shouts "Graveyard!" to passers by. Today's stones can cost $400 to $500 to be installed and carved. Slate upright grave markers cost up to $2,000. For carved granite memorials, "the sky's the limit".

These numbers may seem high, but compared with the giving of chapels, purchases of hearses, and years of improvement the burial expenditures in earlier years Carlisleans may well have devoted more of their assets to burial practices than we do today.

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito