Family Cemetery in Wellfleet Offers a Mystery with More Than One Possible Explanation
On the north slope of Bound Brook Island in Wellfleet, beneath tall shady pines and overlooking the marsh that separates Wellfleet from South Truro, is a small family cemetery. Such modest graveyards can be found in most towns on the Cape, but this one is different. Most family cemeteries are located near the original family homestead. This one is in a remote location, far from any house. It is smaller than usual, containing only three graves and two stones. And yet, it’s enclosed by substantial granite posts and a double railing of galvanized iron pipes.
The three graves are all Lombards. One stone is identified as Mary, wife of Thomas Lombard, who died in 1859, at the age of 44. On the other stone is both her son, James, who died in 1870, aged 24, and his father, Thomas, who died in 1873, aged 60.
When I first came upon the Lombard cemetery years ago, I wondered, Who were these people? Why were they buried in such an obscure and remote location? At first I thought they might have been one of the original families who settled the island in the late 17th century and that, like most of the houses first built here, theirs had been dismantled or moved. But there are no other graves or cemeteries to be found on Bound Brook. Its isolation and remoteness suggested that it might be one of those numerous little smallpox cemeteries that dot the Cape landscape, whose inhabitants were set apart in the mistaken belief that corpses that had succumbed to smallpox were still infectious.
And that does seem to be the likely explanation. The late Ned Lombard - no immediate relation but a Wellfleet native and historian - wrote that they were a South Truro family who all “died of small pox, and the fear that this dread disease might be wafted along with their departing souls prompted family members to deny them interment in the old South Truro Cemetery where they rightly belonged.”
The trouble with this story is that it doesn’t jibe with the death dates. Most victims in a small pox cemetery died within a few weeks of one another. It’s highly unlikely this plague hit the same family at three different times over fourteen years. A more plausible – and much more poignant - interpretation was told to me by the late Jack Hall, an artist and architect who lived on Bound Brook Island for decades. According to Jack, the Lombards lived in South Truro in an old ¾ Cape that can still be seen directly across the marsh from the cemetery. The wife, Mary, apparently did die of the pox in 1859, but her husband Thomas put her grave on the hillside across the Bound Brook marsh so that he could see it from his house. When he and his son died, years later, they were laid to rest there, too.
I confess I prefer Jack Hall’s version, not just because it makes chronological sense, but because it is a far superior, and more human story, and so I choose to believe it. In fact, it makes me think of the ancient Etruscan cities, or metropolises, of Italy, which were built on a hill across a valley from another hill on which they built their communal cemeteries, of necropolises, full of elaborate tombs. In other words, the Etruscans’ Cities of the Living were deliberately built across from their Cities of the Dead. So the living Lombards looked across the marsh to the dead Lombards, enclosed in granite and iron, until at last all slept together in one compact place.