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CUMBERLAND, Maine — A white, marble slab marks Rueben Sawyer’s grave at the Congregational Cemetery. It also memorializes the four wives and two children he outlived.
All seven names, ages and death dates are included on the single, 6-and-a-half foot long stone held aloft by two granite pillars. Resembling a sign board, it is a rare type of family tombstone found almost exclusively in Maine.
Cemetery historian Ron Romano of Portland has written a new book about these peculiar markers called “Billboard Monuments of Maine.” In addition to tracking down and describing all 38 known specimens, Romano reveals some of the true, 19th-century family stories behind them. He shows how the enduring stones mark uncertain times of the past, when lives were often cut short by epidemic diseases and disaster. It was an era when whole families were often laid to rest, and memorialized together.
“This is where I first saw these stones,” Romano said, standing in front of Sawyer’s marker last week. “There are three in this cemetery.”
Sawyer’s stone is divided into six panels. The first is for him. The second, for his first wife, Elizabeth, who died at the age of 30 in 1816. The next three are for wives Olive, 39, Susan, 43, and Jane, 51. The sixth panel memorializes two daughters, ages 18 and eight. They died two days apart in April 1843.
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Romano began work on his new book long before the current pandemic predicament but he has a background and graduate degree in public health. In an early chapter, he cites some sobering statistics from a federal health report covering 1860.
It states that tuberculosis, a virulent bacterial infection often referred to as consumption, was the most common cause of death in Maine that year. It killed 2,169 people. Of the 40 states and territories covered in the report, Maine had the highest death-by-TB rate at 30 percent.
Another bacterial infection, typhoid fever, was the number two killer. It carried off 434 Mainers. The report also said in 1860, 25 percent of all deaths were children under five and 40 percent were folks under 20.
“I knew I wanted to include something about epidemics of the time — what was taking these kids down,” Romano said. “It just turns out that this is a time when we’re all thinking about epidemic illness.”
He also quotes a Maine Medical Association report listing known disease outbreaks in Maine for the year 1866. The list includes typhoid, whooping cough, influenza and dysentery.
These were times before vaccines, ventilators, antibiotics or any real understanding of disease transmission. There was nothing to stop deadly bacteria and viruses from marching through whole families.
Despite these hard statistics — and the fact that the book is about grave markers — Romano doesn’t actually dwell on death very much. Instead, he focuses on the physical differences in the stones and scant life details discovered about the people buried beneath them.
“I love history and cemeteries are loaded with history — the stones and the people they memorialize,” Romano said. “And I love the outdoors and nature. Cemeteries combine both of those things.”
Among the stories Romano uncovers include prohibition troubles, disrupted anti-slavery meetings, a man arrested for supposed Confederate sympathies and the lost ship Isidore.
“There is at least one shipwreck in every book I’ve written,” said Romano, who wrote two previous tomes about Maine cemeteries. “It’s just interesting stuff.”
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An expert on early Maine gravestone carvers, Romano has identified at least six different billboard stone makers. Also detailed are various construction techniques and materials, along with their weight, age, dimensions, condition and location.
Towns where he’s found billboard monuments include Buxton, Portland, Poland, Prospect, Ripley and Wilton. All were made in the mid 19th century.
Romano has also located a handful in Vermont but the phenomenon seems to be limited mostly to Maine. Recently, he presented a paper at a national meeting of cemetery historians.
“They said they’d never seen anything like this,” Romano said.
The exact inspiration for the widely scattered billboards remains a mystery.
“This was a unique design, it was short lived, it worked for a little while and then it didn’t anymore,” Romano said. “We’re lucky to have the 38 that I’ve found. I hope this [book] will help locate a few more that must be hidden away somewhere.”
A few days after Romano spoke to the BDN, that wish came true. Another billboard monument turned up in Parsonsfield. Dated 1834, it is the oldest one yet found. Made from slate and granite, it memorializes Samuel Lord, his three wives, and four children — ages, 20, 19, seven and 21-months.
Romano has already started researching their lives.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all of Romano’s speaking engagements and book signings are canceled for the foreseeable future. Contact him at email@example.com to get a copy of the new book.