PORTLAND, Maine — The city’s Eastern Cemetery turns 350 years old next year. Its stones, tombs and permanent residents mark the history of Portland, almost from the very start. Settlers, Quakers, African-Americans, bank robbers, murderers, abolitionists, war heroes and anonymous folk all rest together in the same patch of downtown dirt.
A new book, published this month, tells their stories and decodes the cemetery’s markers and symbols. Author and native son Ron Romano also throws in quite a bit about his research methods and cemetery conservation techniques as well.
The book, “Portland’s Historic Eastern Cemetery: A Field of Ancient Stones,” is published by The History Press. It’s Romano’s second book. The first was about the city’s first gravestone carver, Bartlett Adams.
Romano is a longtime tour guide at the Eastern Cemetery, which sits at the bottom of Munjoy Hill at the corner of Congress Street and Washington Avenue. He’s also involved with Spirits Alive, a non-profit group which looks after the space and does conservation work on crumbling gravestones.
The book gives a general history of the graveyard and a few lines about famous people buried there. But then it goes further.
“I really wanted to put a spotlight on the minority populations,” Romano said in an email this week. “ When I plotted the African-Americans, the Quakers, and the Catholics and saw how clearly they were pushed to the outer edges of the burial ground, I knew I needed to focus on them.”
Romano also zeroes in on forgotten souls and misfits like Dorcas Lewey. He found a newspaper account of her death from the 19th century.
“The temperature dropped to eight degrees below zero on December 11, 1845,” writes Romano. “With her husband, John, at sea, Dorcas Lewey braved the frigid temperature and set out alone for an evening of drinking.”
She was seen at several taverns around Portland that night. Her body was found the next morning on a pile of snow. She’d frozen to death while drunk. Then, she was buried at the Eastern Cemetery. Sadly, nobody knows just where.
One of the final chapters in Romano’s book includes information on how to identify and read old gravestone symbols and phrases. Weeping willows and urns, for instance, symbolize grief, pain and sorrow. The word “consort” indicates a woman who died before her husband while “relict” means she died after her husband.
Romano also points out, near the end of the book, why it’s important to conserve old cemeteries like the Eastern.
“Once the grave markers are gone, for whatever reason, they can’t be replaced, so we need to ensure they are protected as best we can,” said Romano, in the email.