The Two Oldest Nantucket Quaker Burial Grounds
WALKING IN THE QUAKER BURIAL GROUNDS IN NANTUCKET
“I have always enjoyed cemeteries.
Altars for the living as well as resting
places for the dead, they are entryways,
I think, to any town or city, the best places
to become acquainted with the tastes of the
inhabitants, both present and gone.”
― Edwidge Danticat, After the Dance:
A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti
“The wind’s wings beat upon the stones,
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush
At the sea’s throat and wring it in the slush
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast
Bobbing by Ahab’s whaleboats in the East”
--Robert Lowell, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”
Like the writer Edwidge Danticat, I have always enjoyed cemeteries. I once almost bought a house in Vermont that looked out on a cemetery. My daughters vetoed it immediately. They had no intention of living in a house with a window facing a cemetery. I, however, loved the feel of being so close to history, to stories from the past, to a long line of hardy settlers who had come before me but who lived on in the inscriptions on the monuments erected to celebrate their lives.
As an English teacher, I taught Robert Lowell’s poem “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” long before I had actually set foot on Nantucket. It invited me into the world of whaling and the island of Nantucket. I wanted to see the “brackish reach of shoal off Madaket,” the “Atlantic wall off ‘Sconset’, where the yawing S-boats splash.” I wanted to wander the Quaker Burial Grounds where some of those sailors were buried, and I wanted to contemplate those who never made it back to their home of Nantucket, but were “poured out like water. . . Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves.”
I have been living in Nantucket full time for over a year now, but it was only this week that I finally explored the Quaker Burial Ground. Arriving at the junction of Quaker Road and Madaket Road, I parked the car across the street and entered the burial ground through an opening in the fence. It was early evening, perhaps an hour before sunset. The sun was rapidly sinking, and the graveyard was bathed in golden light. Long soft shadows added drama to my burial ground walk.
My first observation was the vastness of the burial ground in contrast to the relatively few tombstones that were there. Later, when I did a bit of research from the articles by the Nantucket Historical Society, I learned that most Quaker tombs are unmarked. Quakers considered stones or markers idolatrous. Thus, beneath the grass and flowers I walked on were many ancient graves. The markers that are there are are covered in yellow mold, fungus, and lichen, and the inscriptions are so old and worn that most of them are difficult to read. I went from stone trying to make out the names and dates. As I wandered, I though of the stories behind each stone. I wondered who had been happily married, who had been a second wife or a third wife, who had been a whaler, and who had been a tradesman.
At the schools where I taught, graveyards played a role in education. At Hotchkiss, on one of the very first days of class, one history teacher drove all his students to the oldest cemetery in the area. They were required to bring a notebook and a pen. When they got there, they had no idea what they were supposed to do. All the teacher would say was “walk around and jot down everything you think is important.” When they got back to class, they were asked to construct the history of the area based on what they learned in the cemetery. They learned that history does not reside in books—rather it is constructed from the artifacts they encounter and the stories they hear. When I taught creative writing, I would also send my students to the cemetery with a camera and these instructions: Create a story using both words and images. Let the poem or narrative be inspired by the cemetery, the tombstones, and your imagination.
Today, as I walk from stone to stone, I imagine the story behind each one. I think of a book of stories about the men and women and children who lived and died long before I was born.
Inspired by this burial ground, I spent some time researching Quaker burials in Nantucket, and I learned that the first Quaker Burial Ground, now called Founders Burial Ground, is located near the south end of Maxcey's ( sometimes called Macy’s) Pond just off Cliff Road. Fascinated by the idea of visiting this cemetery, I took a hike on Sunday. It is at the location of the original1659 settlement, and was used from about 1711 until 1760. This tiny graveyard has only three engraved stone markers. A large one lists and represents the original male settlers. Another one lists and represents their wives. The smaller third stone is a replica of John Gardner’s stone, and the original of this one is at the Nantucket Historical Association. In order to get to the burial ground, I followed Cliff Road past the Water Tower and took a small gravel road with a sign. The cemetery was about 250 feet up this road hidden by some trees. Now, it may sound as though this was easy to find, but that was not the case. I am generally pretty directionally challenged, and this trek was no exception. Still, when I finally found it, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. Tucked away in a grove of trees, it had the aura of going back in time. I felt a part of Nantucket and its history in a very visceral way.
Far from morbid, a walk in a cemetery is a lesson in history, a place to understand yourself in the great scheme of things, and a wonderful invitation to exercise your imagination. I strongly recommend it.