A Cemetery’s Life-Affirming Stories in Stone
In Barre, Vermont, less than 10 miles from the state capital of Montpelier, residents take the town’s unofficial designation as Granite Center of the World to heart. The Vermont Granite Museum honors the legacy of the local stone industry, for instance, while a 23-foot-high statue of an Italian stone carver, chisel and hammer in hand, honors the thousands of immigrant artisans whose contributions came to define the region.
Granite, specifically the local variation of stone known as Barre Gray, represents a way of life, and at Hope Cemetery, a way to celebrate life.
The city-run cemetery sits on 65 acres and is home to more than 10,000 tombstones, monuments, and memorials. Nevertheless, Hope is viewed less as a collection of tombstones than an open-air museum gallery of Barre Gray sculptures so intriguing that tours are offered.
It’s not the first cemetery to offer tours or show up on visitors’ lists of must-see attractions. Pére Lachaise in Paris, France, and Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles are just two TripAdvisor favorites, primarily for the famous people who are interred there. At Hope Cemetery, however, the focus is on the stones and the stories they tell. Whimsy, pathos, heartbreak, eccentricity, and inspiration are all conveyed in granite. No two are alike.
The first granite quarry opened in Barre in 1812, but it was the arrival of the railroad in the late 1800s that had a transformative effect on the industry. Business exploded. Skilled stonecutters from places like Italy, Scotland, Scandinavia, and Canada came by the thousands, and by the turn of the last century dozens of quarries were in operation.
Barre Gray granite is known for its fine grain, consistent color and thermal stability. There’s something else, too. According to Ilene Gillander, it twinkles in sunlight.
Gillander leads group and private tours of Hope Cemetery. A retired high school English teacher and drama coach, Gillander says: “It may purely be the drama teacher in me, but there’s something in the stone that really draws you to it. It’s a mystical thing, a magical thing. It’s not just a piece of rock. You want to know more about it,” she says. “That’s the feeling I want to transmit to guests, that there’s something very special about this stone and this cemetery.”
She came to Barre from her native Delaware in 1972 to begin her teaching career. The very first day she set foot in a classroom a student told her that if she wanted to understand her new hometown, Gillander needed to visit Hope Cemetery. “I knew nothing about the area, but it got to me. I knew I had to be involved somehow, even if I wasn’t yet sure how.”
Decades later she has become a Barre ambassador. “It’s not a job but a delight to share the love this community has for stone with people from all over the world,” she says.
Gillander says many out-of-towners come by way of group bus tours that are combined with a visit to the mammoth Rock of Ages quarry in nearby—and aptly named—Graniteville. “I can tell by looking at their faces, they’re thinking: ‘Why is this tour manager bringing me to a cemetery?’ But my goal is that by end of the tour they’ll feel uplifted. Hope Cemetery embodies the spirit and the heart of our town. It’s absolutely properly named.”
The tombstones of this still-active cemetery tell life-affirming stories about the hobbies, loves, and passions of those interred there. There are graves marked by a soccer ball, a skyward-facing biplane, and a half-scale race car so detailed you can see the carved undercarriage. They’re all sculpted from Barre Gray granite. There’s a large headstone depicting a couple in bas-relief sitting up in bed, holding hands for all eternity. And there’s a statue of a man seemingly taking his last breath. It is of and by the celebrated stone carver Louis Brusa who suffered from an illness common among stone carvers called silicosis. The often fatal lung ailment was caused by the granite dust carvers inhaled until ventilation systems reduced the hazard in the 1930s. A woman holds Brusa in her arms.
“Whatever you can think of can be designed,” says Gillander.
Hope Cemetery was established in 1895 and designed by landscape architect Edward Adams. At one time, it was a place families congregated on Sundays. Children would play and the adults would wander the grounds, looking at whatever new stones had been erected since their last visit. Many visitors were stone carvers themselves who would happily show off their creations while admiring the work of their colleagues. “There was a tremendous sense of pride,” Gillander says. For today’s generation it is a reminder of a time when thousands of Europeans and Canadians came to Barre with their traditions and work ethic, turning the little New England town into an international melting pot. They brought, too, priceless gifts: original works of art that bear not the names of the artists but of the recipients.
Ilene Gillander is one of the beneficiaries.
Gillander has picked out her spot in the cemetery and selected her stone. In fact, it’s already erected with her name and birthdate etched into the granite. “People in Barre have a feeling that comes with being here,” she says, “which is why when I go, I want to be in Hope.”