Originally published in Cape Cod Chronicle Oct 2017
Throughout October, the Orleans Historical Society has been celebrating Spooky October, focusing on a neighbor who is traditionally considered to be “spooky”- the Orleans Cemetery across the street. We’ve been having cemetery tours, featured select cemetery residents on Facebook, and even had a lecture on the history of gravestone.
This quite large cemetery is not the first cemetery in the area. The earliest known burial ground in town was a small one used around 4000 BC by an early tribe which cremated its dead and buried the ashes with certain artifacts. The site on Barley Neck was excavated in 1960 by the Massachusetts Archeological Society. There are several burial grounds, mostly in South Orleans, for the tribes that were in the area when the Pilgrims landed. The town also has several small cemeteries used by later residents, the Methodist society ground in the center of town and the Rogers’ family graveyard in South Orleans.
But it is the town’s main cemetery on Main Street that most of us know and identify as “Orleans Cemetery.” But surprisingly this in not one cemetery but three combined. The oldest part of the cemetery is just west of the Federated Church, known as the Town Cemetery. The earliest stones date to about 1723, about the time the Old Cove Cemetery in Eastham was no longer used (this is where you’ll find the original settlers of Orleans).
Around 1829, they began using the land on the opposite side of Meetinghouse Rd. but many of the people that were buried there died in the mid-1830’s as a result of a smallpox epidemic. A number of strong smallbox epidemics swept New England during the colonial years, often wiping out entire families and devastating Indian tribes. The disease was so dreaded that colonists often quarantined its disfigured victims in ''pest houses'' away from other people and on death, would bury them separately in shabby, isolated graveyards- these dot the landscape across the area including one in Chatham on conservation land. Luckily the victims of this epidemic in Orleans were buried in a less isolated place, but once the epidemic as over, that section of land was no longer used for burials and they were kept permanently across the road from everyone else.
In 1850, the Orleans Cemetery Association purchased seven acres adjacent to the town Cemetery and along Main Street, adding more acres in the years since. This makes up the bulk of what is known as the Orleans Cemetery, built on some of the highest land in town although you can no longer see the ocean from the top of it- perhaps because in the 1920s there was a massive tree planting effort, part of a legacy left to the cemetery by a local arborist. the Cemetery Association cares for the majority of the land and burials we identify as the cemetery.
Strolling through the cemetery, you see names familiar to Orleans history- names like Snow, Sparrow, Mayo, Higgins but you also others less common. There’s Orin Tovrov a creator of both soap operas (remember The Doctors?) and the Orleans Conservation Trust. And there’s a small stone for Konrad Heiden, a German journalist who was one of the first critical voices against the rise of Hitler. He was driven out of Germany and somehow found Orleans. All the new names show that as much as Orleans holds onto her history, we are constantly welcoming new people and families and adding them to our story.
The cemetery needs some love and attention- there are headstones that are breaking, falling over, even lost. Each stone lost is another story, for each person has a story. Both the Historical Society and the town’s Historic Commission are committed to finding ways to help the Cemetery Association preserve them.
In more fun cemetery news, Spooky October has not ended yet! If this article inspires you, Bonnie Snow will be leading the final cemetery tour of the year at 10 am on October 27th, leaving from the Meetinghouse. And on Halloween night, we will be hosting Spookfest at the Creepy Café, a multimedia event featuring Halloween themed music in a cabaret format performed by father daughter piano duo Kenneth Fearn and Kaeza Fearn. Works performed will include The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Danse Macabre, The Graceful Ghost Rag, and several others. There will be drinks and treats and costumes are very much encouraged! For information on both these events, visit our website at www.orleanshistoricalsociety.org.