”We’re all glad they’re in a beautiful place and we’re coming up here ourselves when our fit’s over.” – from the play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder.
Historical Cemetery Number 45 on Smith Avenue in Greenville has been in the news lately. There is a stone retaining wall that encloses a compartment facing the sidewalk on the west side of the street there. It is bulging ominously toward the walkway. For safety, access to the path has been blocked off by the state.
Due to the potential danger, the bucolic resting place for generations of Greenville area people is getting more media attention than it has received in quite a while, maybe ever.
Smithfield became a township in 1731. At the beginning there were small private cemeteries. Most were devoted to individual families or small neighborhoods. It was only as the town grew larger that community burial grounds came into being.
No. 45, sometimes referred to as “Big Greenville” by the Friends of Smithfield Cemeteries, covers the flat top of a modest hill about a third of a mile out of the village center. Lying there in repose under the green grass are dozens and dozens of former townspeople, the makers of area history and local lore.
They are, perhaps, still more connected to us via the memories of those who remember them than is apparent at first. Their gravestones offer visitors the shorthand version of their histories. For some, like me, who have lived mostly in the town for years and years, they evoke images and stories from the past.
Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” quoted above, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. It has been on stage somewhere ever since. Set in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire in the first decade or so of the 20th century, it focuses on the daily life and affairs of the town, which is a quintessential New England village, much as Greenville was at the time.
Called the greatest American play by the acclaimed playwright Edward Albee, “Our Town” is deceptively simple. It is unadorned with literary devices or flowery language. Instead it slices life like an honest cake cut in the most artful way. Wilder lays the daily beauty of just being alive out there for the viewer so they may discover what is right beneath their noses.
He celebrates the ordinary, and we choke up a little at the ever-fleeting power and meaning in the mundane events of everyday life ... and contemplate the inevitable, irrevocable loss attached to dying.
The third act focuses on the cemetery in Grover’s Corners and the villagers who have gone there, and it is there that he makes the point about loving the simplest things, suggesting that we love it all if only we can.
Walking around in Big Greenville, one will be struck by the contrasts, the tall obelisk here marking the plot of an accomplished professional and his family and the humble stone of a tradesman there. A sense of equity is inherent in any cemetery, no matter the trappings.
In Number 45, well within the range of the firehouse siren, and a two-minute walk from the house where he lived, lies Norman Segee, Smithfield’s first paid fire chief. Beside him is his brother Walter, also a firefighter. Both men were veterans of World War II.
Not that far away is Frank Thornton, who ran an ice cream shop right near the intersection of Smith Avenue and Putnam Pike. A bit further away is Franklin Gavitt, who also had an ice cream emporium. It was at the top of the hill on Putnam Pike going East.
Thornton’s, though, probably had more butterfat in the ice cream than any made in the state at that time. I like to think I can still taste the incomparable flavor of the coffee cone from when I received a free one after getting an all-A report card.
Somewhere nearby is the grave of Mary Evelyn Lakey. A teacher in town for 42 years, Miss Lakey went by her middle name. She was my mother’s friend. The former William Winsor School where they taught is a short hop away as the crow flies.
Maud Keyes lived on Greenville Avenue on the other side of Slack’s Pond, which sits between Smith Avenue and where her house is. Who lives there now? Maud worked at every supper and May breakfast the Greenville Grange held. She had a warm greeting for everyone and spoke louder than she needed to. She smiled a lot. Maud was born in 1887 and died in 1975. She’s been at Big Greenville ever since.
An interesting marker is that of Robert Vernon. It signifies his passing, but he’s not there. Robert, a Scottish man, was a member of the Cameron Highlanders. He died on May 3, 1918, at age 33 of wounds suffered in the First World War. He is interred at Esquelbeco, Belgium. His wife, Agnes Main Vernon, lived in Greenville into her 95th year. I knew her. One of my very good friends is her grandson.
A little irony can’t help but seep in when paying respects to James Earl Tucker. One of the town’s two funeral directors, he was an active member of the Greenville Volunteer Fire Company. Earl was possessed of one of the most distinctive laughs that ever echoed off the walls of the squad room there. A veteran, a plain-spoken charismatic man, he, and his father before him, conducted the rites for many among whom he now shares space.
Ultimately, Thornton Wilder’s observation is apt. In the final act of “Our Town” he writes: “We all know something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars ... everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal and that something has to do with human beings ... There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
(Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org)