221027ind history

The winter crypt at Elm Grove Cemetery in North Kingstown served as a place to house coffins through the long winters of the 1700 and 1800s prior to the invention of backhoes and tractors to dig into frozen ground.

When I think of the words crypt keeper and gravedigger, all sorts of things naturally come to my mind. First and foremost of course is Halloween, trick-or- treating, and things that go bump in the night. Additionally, I am thrust back to a time more than two decades ago, when I was “blessed” with the opportunity to go the Civic Center in Providence and witness the deafening ear-splitting debacle known as a monster truck rally with my two sons, and of course there are a couple of professional wrestlers that come to mind, that I watched with those same two boys on the TV during the same time frame. Heck, if you were, like me, a comic book loving product of the 1960’s and 70’s the Crypt Keeper and his “Tales From the Crypt” are as fond a memory as any.  Nowadays, though, I think of crypt keepers whenever we have a hard winter. Because you see, that’s what crypts and cryptkeepers are really all about.

The practical details of running a cemetery back in the 1700s and 1800s, in a time before backhoes and tractors, were considerably different than they are in today’s mechanized age. During many winters, there was a spell of a month or two, and sometimes even three, where the ground was frozen too deeply to even attempt the laborious process of hand digging a grave. This problem was compounded by the undeniable fact that, the dead of winter is exactly when the largest number of folks would pass on. Although this may have brought a sigh of relief to those unfortunate grave diggers who then didn’t have to go out there in February, shovel and pick in hand, to hack away at the frozen ground, it surely didn’t please the many bereaved families who were forced to keep their dearly departed relative out in the barn or root cellar until the spring thaw occurred. To deal with this problem many public cemeteries, and a few larger family burial grounds, constructed a temporary holding tomb, called a winter crypt, where coffins could be securely stored until the ground became workable again.

Here in our little town we have three of these long-abandoned slightly spooky, winter crypts. Out at Elm Grove Cemetery, the primary public burial ground of the period, a fairly large brick and granite winter crypt was constructed in 1851, around the same time the earliest part of the cemetery was platted out. It could surely hold a large number of stacked up coffins, befitting the size of this cemetery. I’m sure there was many a winter when the big vaulted tomb, behind that great iron door was filled to capacity. Once warmer weather arrived, the grave diggers would have had to work overtime to get their work done before too much “thawing out” occurred. The crypt still stands there to this day dead center in the old section of the cemetery, empty and sadly graffiti-covered, a monument of sorts to days gone by.

Up in Lafayette, built in to the hill behind what is now McKay’s Front Porch, stands the Lafayette village winter crypt, a silent testimony to the fact that Robert Rodman, this mill village’s founder — and owner I might add — fully intended to provide everything his employees could possibly need, all the way from the cradle to the grave as it were. This crypt, a bit smaller than the one at Elm Grove, is complete except for the fact that it is missing its iron door, a definite necessity, as the last thing a hard working crypt keeper ever wants to hear was “Hey, Cyril (or Homer or whomever) it looks like some critter has been gnawing on my great aunt Gertie’s arm!!”

At the other end of town, in North Quidnessett, stands another fine example of a winter crypt.  It was built into the wall which surrounds the Hill family burial ground. Made completely from dry-laid field stones with a monolithic slab roof, it is testimony to the artistry of some unknown stone mason. Its iron door too, is missing, but the hinge pins built into the walls show that it was very similar in construction to the one at Elm Grove. Covered over with vines and briars, it remains much as it was when it was constructed more than 200 years ago.

The age of gravediggers and crypt keepers only exist now in our seasonal imaginations, but these three stone repositories of the dead stand in silent testimony to harsh winters gone by and an ancient time so completely different from ours. Hey, I guess that since I have appointed myself as the guide and guardian of those ancient times that makes me, the son of a son of a son of an undertaker, a crypt keeper as well in a sense. I’m going to keep that in mind for Halloween.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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