It was good to see East Cemetery get some attention the other day. Eleven of the Meriden Masonic Lodge’s 13 founders are buried there, and volunteers from the organization cleared trees and weeds and did other tasks to clean the place up.
“These mountains of men founded a city, founded a Masonic lodge and were buried with honor,” said Nick Valinsky, worshipful master of Meridian Lodge No. 77. “Over the years that history has seemed to escape us. That is why after finding we had 11 of our 13 founders buried here, we took it upon ourselves as a lodge to clean the area of their final resting places.”
There is indeed a lot of history at East Cemetery. On even a casual visit you’re likely to encounter names on tombstones that are the names of the streets and avenues of the city.
There is also a vibrant history of the cemetery itself. Born in Ireland, Anna Gibson came to Meriden in 1853 and started working at the cemetery as a volunteer after her husband bought a home nearby. She’d cut the grass and tidy the lots. By the 1880s, she’d been appointed the cemetery sexton. Despite it being regarded as work more suitable for a man, Gibson toiled there for 40 years, into her 90s. She became the city’s oldest employee and Meriden was considered to have the only 90-year-old cemetery caretaker in the nation. She was still working on cemetery upkeep when she died at 94.
I first became interested in East Cemetery in 2008, when Gary Shamock was leading a grass-roots effort to counter the neglect that had put the cemetery in woeful condition. “Brush covered entire sections of the cemetery,” I wrote, “spray-painted graffiti was evident on several tombstones; many finials, the decorative tombstone spires, had toppled and were strewn around the lawns and surrounding woods, gnarled tree branches clutched at grave slabs.”
In other words, it was a bad scene.
It can be hard to keep track of what happened when — at times I feel fortunate to remember anything at all — but luckily I can look things up. It was a year before that visit to East Cemetery that I’d gone to Maine to watch an auction of a shotgun made in Meriden in 1914 for Czar Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia. The outbreak of the First World War prevented the shotgun from reaching Russia, and there had been a mystery for nearly a century over what had happened to it.
The story was complicated by a famous, ornate fake, but what the Russians were interested in was not something fancy but something genuine from Meriden’s Parker Brothers.
At that auction in Maine, the Czar’s Parker sold for $250,000.
You probably can’t count all the stories that come out of East Cemetery. Along with Charles Parker, three other mayors of Meriden are buried there. There are nearly 100 veterans of the Civil War, a veteran of the War of 1812 and three veterans of the Revolutionary War. Buried at East Cemetery is a veteran of both the Revolutionary War and the French and Indian War: Robert Bradford, who died in 1808.
We are, now, about to make history ourselves. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming election, it’s bound to be decisive in terms of charting the future of the nation, the rich history of which is evident at places like East Cemetery.
Just as their story adds to ours, ours adds to theirs. We are the children of what they worked for, what they fought for, and what they dreamed. When you look at it that way it’s a big responsibility.
And that’s why a place like East Cemetery is worth taking care of.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.