Maine old cemetery expert Ron Romano stands in a Freeport burial ground on Wednesday. Romano's fourth book on New England gravestones is due out this spring. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Ron Romano spends a lot of time wandering around old cemeteries, studying ancient tombstones.

It’s not that Romano is morbid, or a ghoulish moper. He’s not a grim goth, dressed all in black, sporting thick eyeliner, either.

Romano is just a Mainer savoring two of his favorite things: history and the outdoors.

Since retiring a little over a decade ago, the Portland native has spent countless hours combing New England’s burial grounds for interesting headstones and the stories behind them. Fortunately for the public, Romano isn’t shy about sharing the information and pictures he digs up. His fourth book on the subject, “Curious Gravestones in Northern New England,” is due out this spring.

The new tome is a sequel to his 2020 work “Billboard Monuments of Maine,” which describes a rare type of group gravestone memorializing several members of a family at once. For that book, he located and studied 38 such monuments in Maine.

The new book does the same for four more in Maine, four in New Hampshire and 27 in Vermont. He also found a grave marker in Vermont shaped like a toilet seat — but that’s a whole different story, he said.

Now that spring is slowly spreading around Maine, we asked Romano for a list of five intriguing gravestones readers could go search for on their own.

“Asking me to pick five gravemarkers in Maine that I find most interesting is like asking a parent to pick a favorite child,” he said, “but, here it goes.”

Dr. Nathaniel Morrill, Poland

Dr. Nathaniel Morrill’s gravestone in Poland is one of only two Ron Romano knows of in Maine with a coffin carved into the slate surface. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Romano

In his long travels around the state, Romano has only ever found two gravestones with pictures of coffins carved into them. This example can be found in the Middle Range Pond Cemetery. The other is in Kennebunk.

“This marker is for Dr. Nathaniel Morrill, who died in 1807 at the age of 27 in Poland,” Romano said. “The coffin and other decorative elements were carved by an accomplished gravestone maker named Alpheus Cary, who worked for two or three years at the shop of our area’s first stonecutter, Bartlett Adams [in Portland].”

The willow tree is a common symbol found on 19th-century markers. The star and letter “G” are likely Masonic symbols.

In addition to the jumble of symbols, the stone also has an interesting epitaph.

It reads, “By his sudden and melancholy death, occasioned by an unruly ox, his friends and acquaintance have been deprived of a worthy associate, and this town of a useful and respectable citizen.”

While the doctor was out on an afternoon walk, he crossed paths with a farmer bringing a huge ox to market, according to Romano’s research. The beast then broke free, attacked the doctor, impaled him and tossed him into the air.

“The doctor’s back was broken and he lived just a few hours,” Romano said.

Lucy Ulmer, Rockland

Lucy Ulmer’s Rockland gravestone sports a rustic death’s head resembling a spider. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Romano

This stone graces the Tolman Cemetery on Lake Avenue.

In the late 19th century, gravestones were often decorated with skulls, crossed bones, death’s heads, winged hourglasses and other reminders of humanity’s fleeting time on earth.

“Some stonecutters even created interesting, one-of-a-kind soul effigies,” Romano said,  allowing their imaginations to go wild. This is one of these.”

Lucy Ulmer lived a short life, dying at the age of 2 in 1796, but her memory lives on in her rustic-but-arresting grave marker.

“The effigy is shaped like a light bulb, and has round vacant eyes,” Romano said. “The simple stylized wings look more like the eight legs of a spider than the wings of a soul.”

Capt. Benjamin Wyman Morse, Bath

Maine cemetery expert Ron Romano stands next to Capt. Benjamin Wyman Morse’s tree-shaped marker in Bath. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Romano.

By the mid-1800s, many cities were creating peaceful, park-like cemeteries in their suburbs. They encouraged visitors to have a stroll, feed the squirrels and commune with the dead.

“These spaces encouraged stonecutters to create interesting monuments that mimicked the landscape,” Romano said. “Gravemarkers featuring birds, flowers, and vines, or carved in the shape of piles of stones or tree stumps, can be found throughout Maine.”

Maybe the grandest example of this kind of marker can be found in Bath’s Oak Grove Cemetery on Oak Grove Avenue. There, Capt. Benjamin Wyman Morse’s stone is shaped in the form of a life-sized tree trunk.

“It’s so tall at 20 feet or more, and is set among very large natural trees, that a casual passerby might glance at it and assume it to be real,” Romano said. “The bark and tree roots are exact, and there’s even some natural lichen growing on the trunk to add to its authenticity.”

Hanson Family, Saco

This huge, polished granite Hanson family grave marker seems to defy gravity, standing by itself in Saco. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Romano

Romano’s line of study focuses more on hand-carved 18th- and 19th-century gravestones but he occasionally finds newer, machine-made markers of interest. This huge, polished granite cube, perched on a corner is one of them.

It memorializes 11 members of the Hanson family and can be found in Saco’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

“This monument qualifies as ‘art in the park’ and helps us appreciate cemetery landscapes as outdoor museums,” Romano said.

Most of the family members memorialized on the curious stone lived in the late 19th century.

“The lot on which this stone sits is mostly devoid of other markers, so it really stands out as a work of art,” Romano said.

Elwell Family, Buxton

The eight-sided Elwell family marker in Buxton once rotated to reveal all the family names carved on it. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Romano

Romano’s final pick is likely the only one of its kind in Maine. Memorializing 13 members of the Elwell Family, it stands in the small Martin-Titcomb-Elwell Cemetery on Route 22 in Buxton.

“Two stocky granite posts hold up an eight-sided marble gravestone that spins on an axle fitted between the posts,” Romano said. “Each of the eight panels is inscribed with names and dates and visitors could stand at the monument and spin the huge marble piece to find who they wanted.”

Romano included it in his 2020 book about billboard monuments, even though it didn’t strictly fit the criteria, because it was so strange.

“Today, the marble piece has been secured so that we cannot spin it, but it is truly a one-of-a-kind grave marker and certainly deserving of its place in the top five most interesting gravestones I’ve found in Maine,” Romano said.

To order one of Romano’s books about New England gravestone history, or find out where he’s speaking next, contact him at roroman@maine.rr.com.


Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.