The ground covering old cemeteries tends to be lumpy and rolling.
Thin old headstones topple and break.
“Through time, the old wooden coffins disintegrate, and the ground gets weak and spongy,” Steve Merolla said as he walked around Cemetery No. 21, near the intersection of Winfield Road and Hartford Avenue in Johnston. “The stones tend to get off-kilter and eventually fall over.”
The natural world grows and chokes old burial grounds, while the modern world of humans tends to press in and surround centuries-old cemeteries.
Occasionally, development erases them. Several Johnston cemeteries have been bulldozed over the last century.
But often, progress just masks them, hiding the dead from plain sight of the living.
Merolla, vice-president of the Johnston Historical Society, also serves as head of the organization’s Cemetery Committee.
He studies the nearly 100 historic burial grounds in town and has made it his mission to rescue and maintain as many as possible.
“See those dark stones?” Merolla asked, pointing to the western section of Cemetery No. 21, where jagged broken markers stand out like a viscous frown among the mostly manicured grass. “Those are the very earliest, made of slate. They date back to the early 1700s.”
Around 1815, monument makers started crafting tombstones out of marble. Eventually, around the turn of the 20th century, they started making gravestones from polished granite.
For those who know, the type of stone can often roughly date a grave instantly, without struggling to read the faded engravings.
At certain times of the day, the sun streams through the tree limbs and falls on the slate stones, illuminating the inscriptions.
“The sun lights up all the stones, and you can read them easily,” Merolla said.
Cemetery No. 21 is often referred to as the King Cemetery.
A large marble marker stands near the center of the burial ground, a monument to Johnston’s only native son to become governor of the Ocean State, Samuel Ward King.
King was born in 1786 in Johnston, the son of William Borden King and Weithian (Walton) King.
He attended Brown University and eventually went on to study medicine.
“King worked as a surgeon during the War of 1812, serving on the ships Providence and Chesapeake,” according to the Johnston Historical Society.
Merolla said King was taken prisoner and eventually released.
“In 1820, he was elected Town Clerk of Johnston, and in 1838 he was elected to the Rhode Island Senate,” according to a portrait and plaque hanging in the Historical Society’s 101 Putnam Pike headquarters. “Appointed as acting governor in 1839, he was then elected governor in 1840, 1841 and 1842. In 1842, when the state had two elected governors during the Dorr War, King was determined to be the legitimate governor. He resided in a fashionable home on Plainfield Street in the Johnston section of Olneyville.”
King died in 1851 and is buried in the King family cemetery on Hartford Avenue, otherwise known as Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Johnston No. 21.
“He had many children who died young,” Merolla said, pointing to the western side of the monument, where a long list of at least six dead children has been carved. Each child, Samuel Ward, Maria Waterman, Sarah Frances, Antoinette Louise and Antoinette Welthan, died after less than two years of life, between 1826 and 1839.
One unnamed infant, born to his wife Catharine, died the same day as his or her birth, May 4, 1841.
The entire family has been buried under the mound at the base of the marble monument.
The King family, however, traces its origins to another section of the cemetery, where their ancestors, the Bordens, were buried.
A man named Richard Borden arrived in the New World from England in the 1660s, and founded Portsmouth, Merolla said, walking toward the western edge of the cemetery.
He pointed down to the slate stones at his feet, each one marked with a Borden relative’s name.
Borden’s grandson, Mercy Borden, is buried in Cemetery No. 21. He had two sons, William Borden, who died in 1744, and John Borden, who died in 1755.
“Mercy’s two male heirs had passed away,” Merolla said, tracing the family history through their nearly 300-year-old tombstones. “But his daughter married Josiah King of Cranston, and through her, the Borden area of Johnston became the King Estate. That was the beginning of the King Dynasty in Johnston.”
The newly formed King family eventually produced notable offspring, like the future governor, Samuel Ward King.
Many of the burial plots in Cemetery No. 21 have both a headstone and footstone marking the dimensions of each interred casket.
The headstones face the west, and the footstones face east.
“On the foot stones, you usually find the initials and sometimes the date of death,” Merolla said. “About 90 percent of the writing on the headstones will face to the west. The writing on the footstones will face east.”
Rhode Island’s early settlers believed the bodies would stand up from the grave to meet the second coming of Christ, and the Messiah would come from the direction of the setting sun, in the east, Merolla explained.
“The dead would stand up to meet him,” he added, using his hands to portray the resurrected bodies, tilting up from the ground, head over foot, facing east.
Many of the headstones feature a face with broad wings, the signature design of the gravestone carver, Borden Thornton, another relative of the King and Borden families.
Merolla wore a shirt emblazoned with the design, and Thornton’s birth and death dates.
The committee head does what he can to maintain many of the town’s oldest cemeteries.
When stones break, he helps to repair them. Merolla leads a small band of volunteers, focused on rehabilitating the burial grounds, and maintaining them through the seasons.
“It’s our town’s history,” he said, carefully stepping between stones. “These are the people who founded this town. There are Revolutionary War veterans buried in these cemeteries. These people served their country and built a community.”
The committee has rehabilitated around 30 cemeteries in town, less than a third of Johnston’s burial grounds. They’ve focused mainly on cemeteries on main roads, in full view of the public.
Some are in the middle of forests, or secluded on private land.
“We need help maintaining these cemeteries,” Merolla said. “Once we rehabilitate a cemetery, it becomes an issue of maintenance; cutting lawns and weed-whacking.”
Merolla hopes the public will step up to help the cemetery committee fulfill its mission.
He urged anyone who would like to chip in, by volunteering to maintain a cemetery by mowing the grass and clearing weeds and debris, to contact the Johnston Historical Society (by calling 401-231-3380).
“There are so many landscaping companies in the town,” Merolla said. “If only a few of them could donate one cut per year, it would help; just one, maybe two cuts. That would be a big help.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first story of a weekly series looking into the conditions and history of the town’s nearly 100 historic cemeteries.