Old graveyards are remarkably quaint and dependably quiet; few, if any, cell phones ring. Each headstone tells a tale: “Died at sea,” or the old-school “Beloved mother.” The earliest Colonial-era messages appear grim today, such as the one on the grave of Henry Butler, who died in 1737 during his 27th year: “When on This Stone You Cast an Eye, Remember You Are Born to Die.” You can read that one yourself at Edgartown’s Tower Hill Cemetery.
Whatever sentiment is expressed on a tombstone, it draws us curiously closer to the person who lived a full life, or, in some cases, an all-too-brief life.
A new exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum on School Street in Edgartown celebrates “History Hybrid,” as researched in cemeteries by Charter School sixth graders.
Museum educators Ann DuCharme and Beth Seabourne are transforming our antique graveyards into a rich source of learning. This past month they descended on Scott Goldin’s sixth grade class at the Charter School, as a dozen students visited the old Village Cemetery in West Tisbury, where tombstones old and new are surrounded by farms and woodlands.
Each student was assigned to pick a grave that caught his or her fancy. Sixth grader Maisie Sherman was riveted by the stone of a girl named Josephine, who died on Halloween many decades ago at the age of 13. How could Maisie not feel immediate empathy and interest? She grabbed the worksheet handed out by the educators, and filled out the answers to “Name on headstone, date of birth, date of death, headstone details. What does it look like?”
Students were encouraged to draw the tombstone of their new best (dead) friend. During a visit to the museum, they sought out any information they could find about the decedent. Back in the classroom, under the guidance of language arts teacher Mathea Morais, they wrote stories and poems.
Young Jack Hayden chose the headstone of his uncle, Jeffrey Hayden, who’d died at the age of 21 in a motorcycle accident. On the far spectrum of pure whimsy, Sebastian Alexander transformed the life of his cemetery subject, respected historian and author Joseph C. Allen, 1924-1987, into a thriller: A sinister group called Amo (“That means ‘I love you’ in Latin,” he explained) was after Joseph’s son, a bank robber (pure fiction, of course), to steal his loot. Joseph’s wife booked it off the Island to England, and a lot of other nefarious deeds took place.
Sebastian’s accompanying artwork depicts, among other wild notions, an old photo of two young roughnecks with shadowed faces. “Amo tortured Joseph to reveal where his son was hiding, but he wouldn’t tell. Before he died, he blacked out the faces of the robbers.” One thing is for sure: Young Sebastian has a job writing for the “Breaking Bad” of 2025.
Under the direction of Charter School art teacher Amy Size, the students threw themselves into paint, snippets of ribbons and lace, and old wallpaper patterns with red cabbage roses. Sixth grader Ken Healy seized on the locally famous grave of 19th century “Chicken Lady” Nancy Luce, whose gravesite boasts decorative fowl.
Maria Andrade put together a collage of love notes, lace, trinkets, and a drawing of two enormous eyes as a wordplay on a tombstone with the surname Look.
Ms. DuCharme spoke of the way math plays into the project. “Kids always ask, ‘When am I going to use this?’ and, of course, it’s commonplace to run the figures in your head when you see someone was born in 1793 and died in 1827.”
The kids also got a lesson in tombstone iconography of times past: an anchor conveyed hope; corn, rebirth; a crown, victory; a skull with angel wings, mortality followed by ascension into heaven. Death’s heads with wings denoted earliest tombstones of Colonial times. By the late 1700s, scary skulls were softened to cherubs with wings.
Once in possession of this scholarship, you can show off the next time you guide a visitor around one of our charming cemeteries.
This admirable — and adorable — exhibit runs through June 12.