December 6, 2023
On a providentially mild November afternoon the City of Portsmouth returned fragments of remains thought to date to between 1820 and 1950 to North Cemetery. Their gravesites had been discovered when the wall bordering the Maplewood Avenue site of the cemetery was being rebuilt. The sites were not marked and work stopped immediately when the graves were disturbed.
Reverend Pastor Jennifer Mazur of North Church led a brief Service of Rest and Recognition, joined by Assistant Mayor Joanna Kelley, City Manager Karen Conard, DPW Director Peter Rice, Deputy City Manager Suzanne Woodland, members of the City’s Cemetery Committee and archaeologist Dr. Kathleen Wheeler.
Both Rev. Mazur and Assistant Mayor Kelley commented on the unknown identities of those being re-interred and their marginalization, buried on the edge of the cemetery, which probably meant they also lived on the margins in the city. Rev. Mazur described them as “the last or the least in a city with a long history of seeking wealth” while asserting that those gathered for the ceremony were “standing together, honoring them and their lives” and calling on the gathering to “do better for the poor and disenfranchised on the Seacoast.”
“Though we do not know their names or stories, they were here,” she said. “They walked on our streets, they had value and worth and we’re here to bear witness. We honor their lives and learn and grow from the lessons they still have to teach us.”
Assistant Mayor Kelley echoed the thought of bringing dignity and respect to these unnamed residents, “Quoting the poet: ’They lived, saw dawn, felt sunset’s glow, loved and were loved’ and now they lie here in North Cemetery where they can rest in peace.”
Susan Sterry and Deirdre Forte, co-chairs of the City Cemetery Committee announced that a plaque to tell the story of the discovery and re-interment of the remains will be placed in Spring 2024. The plaque reads:
“In 2016, during restoration of this North Cemetery wall, archaeologists discovered that the wall had been built over a row of graves. They mapped the location of at least eighteen graves and collected skeletal remains from those graves disturbed during the reconstruction. The graves were unmarked; the identity of those buried in them is unknown. The skeletal remains were returned to the ground in a ceremony of reburial in 2023.”
Deputy City Manager Suzanne Woodland said, “In this small act of reverence, respect and kindness we have a special and sacred purpose” and quoted poet Mary Oliver’s “Song of the Builders” in which a single cricket “was moving the grains of the hillside/this way and that way” and the hope that “it will always be like this/each of us going on/in our inexplicable ways/building the universe.”
In her remarks, archaeologist Wheeler, who has maintained appropriate custody for the remains since they were uncovered seven years ago, commented that she thinks the wall may have been built over what was originally a rolling landscape tapering down the sloping site. She explained that the ceremony re-interred an adult male, an adult female and two children who had been buried next to each other and were now being returned to their original burial sites. She continued by “confessing to the spiritual nature as well as the scientific nature” of her work” by recounting a dream she had after the graves were first uncovered. She dreamt of a young boy climbing an incline who turned back to look at her. “He smiled at me,” she said, “Which I took to be a benediction on the work we conclude today.” She also said he told her in a country English accent that his name was “Davey” and challenged historians to try to learn the full identity of a Portsmouth boy named Davey who died around 1820. She then placed the remains in vertical tubes buried in the ground in the locations where they had been found.
To conclude the service, Rev. Mazur invited the twenty or so members of the gathered assembly to place flowers on the gravesites, urging participants to consider “How will we go forth and use the time we have to spread more life and love that will take root and bloom.”