Traffic passes intermittently along Rhode Island Road by the barely two-foot-high slate gravestone that has marked the final resting place of Elkanah Leonard’s child since 1711.
Traffic passes intermittently along Rhode Island Road by the barely 2-foot-high slate gravestone that has marked the final resting place of Elkanah Leonard’s child since 1711.
Today it’s surrounded by scores of other stones.
Some mark graves nearly three centuries old while others are only slightly more than three years old in the three-acre Thompson Hill Cemetery, which was augmented by the Precinct Cemetery in the 1940s.
The child’s age and gender are not noted on the tiny marker, located about 50 feet from the roadside, and flanked by the LeBaron Hills Golf Course.
Only a few feet away is the marker for Elkanah himself, who died in 1714 at age 38.
The child’s marker is the oldest still extant in town, and might well have stood all alone in 1711.
“Well, you never know,” said Jean A. Douillette, author of “Lakeville, Massachusetts Gravestone Inscriptions 1711 – 2003.” Often the deceased were buried for a period of time before a marker was erected, she said.
But there’s not a whole lot Douillette doesn’t know about the town’s final resting places, having spent seven years compiling the epitaphs in Lakeville’s 31 known cemeteries to complete her book project. “Every stone with writing on it I could access,” she said.
Some family lots are on private land and she was not allowed to view them.
Elkanah’s wife, Charity Perkins, is buried next to her husband. She remarried but requested to be buried alongside Elkanah, which is noted on her slate marker.
While the marking’s on the Leonard gravestones are legible, other stones require more work to read, either because the slate has peeled away over many years – called exfoliation – or lichen – a slow growing algae-fungus – has obscured the etching.
Removal is a delicate matter. Harsh methods will destroy the centuries’ old markings. Gentle methods to help obtain a better view are best, and Douillette said she’ll go no further than fingernails or wicker brushes.
She also uses a mirror to catch the sunlight and reveal markings otherwise masked by the lichen.
She has a hand mirror, as well as a four-foot-high mirror mounted on a wooden rectangular base she built herself for larger stones.
An interest in genealogy led to the mother of three’s book project. She was born in Cincinnati, but her family was originally from the Cape Cod area. When she moved here with her children and husband, Alan, her father encouraged her to do research on the family’s origins.
“There’s so much here,” she said of the information that can be gleaned in the graveyard. “There’s artistry, history and genealogy.”
The epitaphs can be varied.
The stone marking Chloe Clark’s grave in the Keith Cemetery states:
“Shed not for her the bitter tear
Nor give the heart to vain regret,
Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that filled it sparkles yet.”
Clark died in 1863 at the age of 77.
William Canedy’s stone marking his death in 1774 at the age of 86 was replaced in 1913, and the epitaph is easily read today. Though, Douillette added, the attempt to duplicate the original ornamental carving falls short.
“The old guys did it much better. There’s no comparison.”
Many of the more artistic ornamentation was carved by George Thompson of Middleboro, from sunbursts to angels to hourglasses with wings. He was born in the 18th century and worked well into the 19th, inscribing his name at the bottom of the stones or incorporating a carved swirl as his mark.
William Canedy was a veteran of the French and Indian Wars. His epitaph is suitably martial, noting “he shall no more scurge (sic) the wild natives of the eastern shore.”
One epitaph she’s found inscribed on two stones in separate cemeteries is moving in its simplicity: “She made our home happy.”
The words etched in the stone marking a 7-year-old child’s remains, interred in 1818, has a bitter tone: “Here lies the hope of a fond mother and the blasted expectation of an indulgent father.” “Blasted” was a strong term for the day, she said, virtually an expletive. There’s no further explanation as to what led to the strong words of farewell.
Was the father blaming himself for allowing the child to do something dangerous that led to such an early death?
“You’d like to know what happened,” Douillette said.
Her current project is to compile a picture of each stone for a book she hopes to complete next summer. It’s time-consuming in part because the best lighting can be dependent on the season.
The idea is to preserve these monuments on a bookshelf, she said, safe from the inexorable lichen, falling trees, acid rain, vandalism, exfoliation and time.