Numbered Souls

Hillsborough County Cemetery, Goffstown NH. Photo by Ellen Kolb.

All Souls’ Day: the one I don’t have to go to Church for, as opposed to All Saints’ Day. I’ve never quite shaken that childhood view. I take more note of the day than I did as a child; that comes with time and age and enduring the deaths of friends and loved ones.

I find myself saying brief silent prayers when I pass a cemetery. There’s no superstition or fear involved. It’s commending souls to God – I once thought that an odd phrase, but no longer. I even do it when the burial ground reveals no names.

Hillsborough County Cemetery, Goffstown NH. Photo by Ellen Kolb.
Hillsborough County Cemetery, Goffstown NH. Photo by Ellen Kolb.

There’s a small cemetery in a mildly improbable place along a rail trail near my house. It’s behind the county office complex, on the other side of what used to be a rail line. The other side of the tracks, literally, kept from view of the nearby busy road by the office buildings.

It’s a tidy place. There are weathered markers with numbers but no names. The grass around the markers is mown, but there’s no landscaping. There’s a flagpole. There’s a not-very-informative plaque, placed in 2001, obviously long after the cemetery was established. A newer sign, erected by trail supporters with a donation from AARP, gives a little more history.

informational sign at Hillsborough County cemetery, Goffstown NH
Informational sign about old county cemetery, Goffstown NH

The cemetery’s location is a clue to its history: on county land, near county offices, near where a prison used to be. A friend with some knowledge of local history, plus a bit of online searching, told me a little more about it.

Everyone buried there was a county ward of some sort: a prisoner, a nursing home resident, an indigent person. The cemetery being small, markers had to be small as well, without expensive carving. The markers were simply numbered, and a ledger maintained in the county offices noted the names of each deceased next to the number of the grave.

One ledger, no backup. It was lost or destroyed, perhaps in a fire. The names were lost.

Each person had a name, a family, a story. Now, God only knows who they were. They have no one to pray for them, except the odd passer-by like me.

While rambling on New Hampshire trails, I’ve come across old family cemeteries with stones lovingly inscribed with names, dates, and images. There might be nothing left of a homestead but a cellar hole, but the family graveyard was made to last, and the names were meant to be remembered.

There was no such heritage for county wards. So spare them a thought and an All Souls’ prayer. Add a little prayer of thanksgiving for the county worker who keeps their resting place tidy. It’s a kind of respectful mercy, and there’s grace in that.