Shortly before her 23rd birthday, Hattie Rhodes’ parents invited family and friends to a gathering on a Saturday at 1pm. The gathering was in Hattie’s honor, but it was an invitation to her funeral and not to a birthday celebration. William and Hannah Rhodes lost their only daughter to typhoid fever on December 7, 1870. Sometime after the services that December 10th, Hattie was taken to Pawtuxet cemetery on Post Road in Warwick and laid to rest not far from her maternal Arnold cousins and paternal Rhodes family. With the headstone erected over the grave, Hannah and William told the world two things: Hattie had died at the age of 22 years, some months and 29 days and they proclaimed that Hattie was “Our Loved One.” In time, Mother and Father joined their daughter in the small cemetery not far from the Pawtuxet river; a family once again.
William, Hannah and Hattie Rodes are three of the over 400,000 people across the state buried in historical cemeteries.
April and May 2023 have been designated “Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries Awareness and Preservation Weeks” by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission (RIHPHC) and the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries (RIACHC). During these two months, cities and towns across RI are sponsoring activities including tours of selected burial grounds, talks about famous people buried in the cemetery, training on how best to photograph tombstones, classes on cleaning headstones, clean-up events seeking volunteers, demonstrations of using ground-penetrating radar to locate unmarked graves, meetings of “cemetery enthusiasts,’, cemetery archaeology tours, talks by authors, self-guided walking trails through historic graveyards, and more.
Unyielding, unending headstones and “crosses, row on row” is how many of us think of cemeteries, especially when driving through Swan Point or passing Old North Burial Ground near Interstate 95. It is hard to be “unaware” of places that cause highways to divert their route and which are the final resting spot of governors, senators, and HP Lovecraft with his epitaph “I am Providence.” But many Rhode Islanders might not realize that in the midst of life we are in the midst of death. Smaller historical cemeteries with just a few headstones abound.
Rhode Island has more than 3,000 historical cemeteries identified to date. It sounds like a lot for the smallest state and it is a lot. Rhode Island has more cemeteries per square mile than other early colonies or states. The practice of religious freedom in the colony of Rhode Island meant that the majority of towns had multiple smaller places of worship and no central town churchyard for burials. This led families to have plots located on their private property. Many Rhode Islanders practiced this custom up until the 1850s when large “garden” style cemeteries came into fashion and families would buy plots in their town cemetery. The result is 2.6 cemeteries for each square mile in the state.
Some Rhode Islanders have always been aware of historical Cemeteries. Christopher Tanguay of Warwick grew up next to one the 150 historical cemeteries located in the city. This small plot contained descendants of Randall Holden, one of the founders of Warwick. “We did maintain it regularly and it was vandalized from time to time, so my family put up hedges in a certain way that allowed access but blocked the view, so you would have to know it was there. The Holden family sent my parents a thank you letter for that,” said Tanguay. “We still maintain it. Since growing up with a cemetery on the property, I would go and read the headstones and connect the family members. Also I didn’t know the reputation for cemeteries until one Halloween when my sister and I were out trick or treating and these random kids asked us if we were going to go to ‘the house by the cemetery.’ It took me a few minutes to realize they meant US. I thought, and still think, that cemeteries are incredibly peaceful.”
Cemeteries provide valuable genealogical and historical information. They are public parks, their headstones are art and their landscape designs reflect the fashions of their day. They mark the lives of great individuals and they stand in mute testimony to “the short and simple annals of the poor.”
Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries Awareness and Preservation Weeks allow us to come together to learn about our history and honor the past. Acts of service allow us to pay it forward while each of us awaits the day when we, like Hattie Rhodes, will be someone’s mourned for “loved one.”
For a complete listing of Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries Awareness and Preservation Week’s free events, visit preservation.ri.gov/ricw.