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 “Vermont Book of the Dead: Graveyard Legends and Lore”

Not Just for Halloween

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Despite its rather sensational title, Roxie Zwicker’s latest excursion into Vermont cemeteries offers an informative and entertaining blend of history, folklore, and, yes, even some ghost stories and legends. For local readers, each chapter of “Vermont Book of the Dead: Graveyard Legends and Lore” (The History Press, Sept. 25, 2023) could lead to a 251 Club Part 2, exploring many towns initially through a chapter in her well-researched book, and then perhaps making a trip to the cemetery to appreciate the stories represented by each memorial.

For those with an historical imagination, walking through any graveyard and reading the inscriptions and dates can lead to a curiosity about the lives of people once mourned, now perhaps forgotten. As an elementary school student, I used my arithmetic skills to discover by the dates how many children were buried in our local cemetery. I wondered about their lives, their families, and what life was like back then. Rather than frightening me, walking through a graveyard sparked an interest in history through biography. I wish I had a book like this one to widen my perspective. 

Zwicker is a skillful storyteller, writing with humor (and terrible puns!) about prominent or fascinating citizens of each town and offering historical context that transcends biography. Paranormal events are rare but fascinating to read: a tall tale from Washington County about the dead coaxed back to life after being frozen; and a cursed family in Albany village and their string of misfortunes. Spiritualism and psychic manifestations play a role in the book, but the main focus for Zwicker is the search for the stories behind the graves and what they can teach us. She shows sensitivity and respect while reporting recent events, never exploiting or sensationalizing, unlike the popular true-crime genre. 

Some of the stories, however, are just plain creepy: reports of grave robbing by students in Castleton for dissection practice, and the legend of “Black Agnes” from Green Mount Cemetery in Montpelier known by area teens who dare each other to sit in the statue’s lap and face the curse. 

Some stories evoke sadness, such as the deadly history of Huntington Gorge, or the story of 51 children who died in orphanage care buried in Lakeview Cemetery of Burlington. In the Burgess Cemetery in Grafton, Rebecca Clark’s 13 children who did not reach adulthood are memorialized with a poignant carving of angels. 

Of course, Barre granite and Dorset marble are part of the story, with photos of sculptures and monuments that show the work of generations of Vermont stone carvers. In this, Barre’s Hope and Elmwood cemeteries have a prominent chapter. Zwicker also traces the change over time of the stone decorations on monuments and their symbolism. Not only the famous stone artists of Barre, but local carvers and their work, sometimes called folk art, are also honored. 

At Halloween nowadays, graveyards, skeletons, and creepy events serve to entertain as well as give us the shivers. “The Vermont Book of the Dead” uses the cemetery to explore our history and learn of people long gone, some famous and some forgotten. It balances scholarship with entertainment and includes photographs of people and memorials. It is not a ghost story but a fascinating history.

Yet there is a way to use this book for fun: one chapter lists gravestone inscriptions — both grim and quirky — that might make an effective candlelit Halloween reading around the fire! 

From Newfane, Vermont, the grave of Hastings Williams (d.1808): 

Sudden he fled and left this earthly stage, 

Early paid the debt to nature due, 

Take solemn warning all of every age, 

The King of Terror soon will summon you. 

“Vermont Book of the Dead: Graveyard Legends and Lore” by Roxie Zwicker is available at local bookstores and online.

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