Friday, July 8, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

I've been playing catch-up this week, since I've just finished the draft of one book, due to my publisher at the end of the month, and I'm waiting for editorial comments on another book, due next week.  So while I wait, I've been clearing off my desk and finalizing some things that have been pending for a while.

One of which is my cemetery plot.  No, I don't have a terminal illness, nor does anyone in my family.  But I have an unusual history with cemeteries: they are my inheritance.  I can prove ownership of at least four plots, all of which have space in them.  In some cases there hasn't been a burial in the plot for decades.

Since the world has a way of surprising you, I thought it made sense to verify what my rights are, in the event something unexpected happens.  After all, your loved ones usually aren't in any condition to make major decisions at difficult times, and they may live far away, which complicates matters.  So if I can make one small part of the process simpler, I'll feel better.

The thing of it is, I'm not talking about any old cemetery; I'm talking about Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.  All right, most people won't know anything about it, or will confuse it with Washington Irving's story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (that's in a different state).  "My" Sleepy Hollow is famous for other reasons:  it's where all those authors are buried.

My family has a long history with the place.  The plot where I (or whatever is left of me) want to spend eternity was bought when my great-great-great-grandmother Sarah Durant Pratt died in 1893.  She didn't even live in Concord at that time, but that's where she met and married her husband.  She was probably a millworker, and he was a carpenter, later contractor.  They did have one son who lived in Concord in the 1890s (he had his own plot in the same cemetery).

So the family bought the plot for Sarah, and she and later her husband and a couple of her daughters were buried there.  It's a nice plot, right on one of the internal roads, on level ground--easy to get to. Lots of passers-by. But the biggest appeal is that it's right down the hill from Author's Ridge.

There was a cemetery on the site in the eighteenth century, but the better-known section was designed in 1855 by a pair of landscape architects.  Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke at the consecration.  It was one of the earlier "garden cemeteries" (Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, founded in 1831, was the first, followed closely by Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia).  Such cemeteries were intended as something like recreational sites, where middle-class citizens could pack a picnic lunch and visit to commune with the dead and enjoy the glories of nature.  They were provided with benches and strolling paths, punctuated by burbling fountains.  Maybe now it seems a bit odd to think of cemeteries as places for pleasure, but I've enjoyed more than my fair share.

To return to Sleepy Hollow's Author's Ridge...think back to the heady days of the nineteenth century, when the historic town of Concord was a hotbed of Transcendentalism, led by Emerson (whose house is not far distant from the cemetery).  Picture the marvelous dinners that gathered Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and others around Emerson's table.  It shouldn't surprise you that they chose to continue their discourse even after death:  they're all buried together in the cemetery.  The Thoreau family, the Alcott family, the Emerson family, as well of Nathaniel Hawthorne, all cheek by jowl at the top of the hill--overlooking "my" plot, passed down to me through generations.

Louisa May Alcott

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Henry David Thoreau

Nathaniel Hawthorne

I first visited the cemetery when I was a teenager, with my mother and grandmother.  My grandmother had presided over the last interment there, in 1935, representing the dwindling family (she had married Sarah's great-grandson).  I have always remembered the visit, most notably Emerson's pink quartz stone.

Fast forward to 2003.  I was housesitting for a college friend in a town near Concord, while my daughter finished high school so we could move to Massachusetts where my husband had a job waiting.  I was unexpectedly unemployed, so I wrote a book.  It was not a wonderful book, but it was good enough to land me my first agent.  In the spring of 2003, before heading back to Pennsylvania to pack up for the move, I stopped by the cemetery to talk to the authors.  I had planned to ask them to help me sell the book.  Instead, what came out of my mouth unexpectedly was, "help me make it good."

I guess it worked.  That book didn't sell, and I fired that first agent, but eight years later I have nine books on the shelves and more coming.  Thank you, Louisa, David, Nathaniel and Ralph.  (BTW, my grandmother was a BIG fan of Emerson.)

All of these writers and thinkers were already installed on top of the ridge when my family bought the cemetery plot.  Did it affect their selection?  I don't know.  But I would be honored to take my place among the Concord titans--which is why I'm paying the back fees this week.

P.S.  If you want one more literary note, Louisa May Alcott wrote a short mystery story in 1867:  "The Mysterious Key and What It Opened." It's widely available as a free download online.


lil Gluckstern said...

Lovely post. I really like old cemeteries because they tell stories. i got chills just looking at your pictures. I spent one year in the Boston area, and it was one the most special years. I loved walking in history. May of your books are on my shelf. I enjoy them very much.

Susan Bailey said...

Aren't you lucky to have a plot at Sleepy Hollow! And being an author yet, very cool. I am a big fan of Alcott and Thoreau (I keep a blog on Alcott at and visited the cemetery last year and took pictures. I loved how Thoreau's little stone had an acorn on top! I've visited Mount Auburn Cemetery for years as our family are avid bird watchers. I visit now every Mother's Day in honor of my mom and had the honor of singing at a memorial service in the beautiful chapel there. Last year also my sister and I went on a quest to find our grandfather's plot (on my Mom's side) in Lynn, MA at Pine Grove Cemetery and we were delighted to find 4 generations of Breeds with enough information to piece together a family tree!

Sheila Connolly said...

Lil, I love the places. Maybe it's peculiar, but I feel I'm honoring the dead, or at least their memory, whether or not I'm related to them. That's why our ancestors stuck their cemeteries in the middle of town, right?

Oh, my, Susan, we must be related--I've got a huge clutch of relatives in Pine Grove in Lynn! And conveniently several generations are buried together. The source of my original pen name, Sarah Atwell, was the sister of a Lynn ancestor--she married Aaron Breed (she predeceased him and he was buried with his second wife).

Re Sleepy Hollow, there's also the lovely story about how Hawthorne's much-loved wife died in England, and in the past few years she was quietly transferred to lie beside him in Sleepy Hollow.

And there seems to be a local tradition that people leave little offerings on Thoreau's stone--I've seen coins and pencils there.