Wellfleet's Old Congregational Cemetery Offers a Glimpse of the Cape That Was
One of the reasons I look forward to the opening of P.J.’s on Rt. 6 in Wellfleet each spring is so that I can once again get a kiddie-vanilla-cone-with-a-chocolate-dip for $1.87, including tax.
It’s not so much that I love processed soft-serve ice cream. It’s that, once I’m handed the cone, I can then, on the pretext of not wanting it to melt in the car, take it with me into the old Congregational cemetery just across the road.
This graveyard predates the current Wellfleet Congo Church, which was built in 1850. Its oldest surviving gravestones go back to at least 1760, when, I believe, the original church stood next to it. It is not the oldest cemetery in Wellfleet. That honor belongs to a small, virtually hidden graveyard off Summit Avenue overlooking the harbor; but it is the cemetery that contains the most old stones. It is expansive and populated enough a burying ground that it provides novelty for several visits.
It’s pleasant just to stroll here among the uneven aisles of the dead, where fashion in headstones changes with the decades. The oldest ones, erected before the Revolution, are dark-grey slate slabs with death’s heads carved into them and epitaphs of a dour Puritanical character – you know, “As I was once so you must be….” etc., etc.
After 1776, though, a new wave of optimism hit the young Republic, one that reached even the dead. Death skulls were almost overnight replaced by cherub faces. By 1820 the fashion had shifted to marble headstone adorned with urns and weeping willows, and sentimental Victorian verse about being “in a better place” and “meeting again” in “heaven’s home.” Most of these epitaphs are obscured or carved away by the effects of lichen and rain on the softer stone.
By the turn of the previous century more durable granite stones had replaced the marble ones. Contemporary stones, which are still in the minority, have adopted a plethora of forms and materials, as well as epitaphs. They mark a shift from the older conformity and anonymity in death to an assertion of individuality and of the persistence of personality, even in death. (My favorite example of post-mortem egotism is found on a fairly recent headstone in the South Truro cemetery which bears the blatant boast: “Think ye God stops short of perfection? I shall return!”)
But it is the quiet, modest, ranks of graves in this old church cemetery that I like best, the familiar family names that once dominated the community over several generations: Higgins, Hatch, Newcomb, Swett, Dyer, Baker, Holbrook. Most of these persist in living bodies down to the present, though their numbers are reduced and outnumbered by those of more recent arrivals like myself. Still, they remain as a kind of petrified reflection of what the town once was, families gathered together, juxtaposed, touching others – an open, mute statement of their past and present existence , silently attesting, “Here I was! Here I am!”
Some of the older stones are intact and quite legible, others are eroded into permanent anonymity, still others are fragmented and felled by frost and thaw, but all, somehow, present a testament to a common enterprise, an enterprise that continues today, and of which, by the simple virtue of living here, I, too, am a part.
“We did it” – they seem to say – “so can you.”