Brattleboro Retreat rededicates cemetery


Photo Gallery | Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery Rededication

BRATTLEBORO — After years of neglect and some vandalism, the Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery has undergone significant improvements lately.

Tuesday morning, current and former employees, supporters, neighbors, members of the Retreat's consumer advisory council, and others from the community walked up behind the old Anna Marsh building for a rededication ceremony where they admired the restored gravestones and perimeters, listened to speeches and enjoyed some light refreshments. One common theme among the speakers was that all individuals deserve a respectful final resting place.

"We're just committed to make sure this ground is honored and treated respectfully and in good shape as you see it here today," said president and CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat, Louis Josephson.

There are 34 headstones remaining at the cemetery and Majorie Valliere Howe, a former resident of Williamsville, compiled "A Record of Burial at the Vermont Asylum," which is somewhat of an unofficial record of those who were interred there. It is believed by some staff that the first person to be buried in the cemetery was a gentleman named Isaac Needham who died April 4, 1839. The cemetery was in active use from about 1840 until the turn of the 20th century as Mary Laterio, who died April 19, 1901, is the last person noted in the records as being buried there.

It is unknown how many people in total are buried at the Retreat Cemetery, though records indicate that 659 individuals were originally laid to rest there. Some remains have been recorded as moved to other locations such as the Prospect Hill Cemetery on South Main Street.

"One of the most messed up things in our world is the way society encourages us to behave as though some lives matter more than others; it's a lie," said Susie Webster-Toleno, minister to the Congregational Church of Westminster West and local hospice chaplain. "And today we are taking a moment to tell the truth, the lives of the vulnerable are just as important as the lives of the powerful and they must be remembered."

A combination of decades of cold winters and vandalism led to the deterioration of the historic burial ground. Executive coordinator at the Brattleboro Retreat, Brenda Nichols, who is also the unofficial historian within the Retreat, along with former Retreat President and CEO Rob Simpson, spearheaded the cleanup at the cemetery. The effort was funded by a $10,000 gift from the Ben and Jerry's Foundation in honor of former Retreat trustee Julie Peterson.

Simpson spoke at Tuesday's event, commenting that it was special because it encompasses a common human goal of hoping to be remembered after death.

"Isn't that what we all want when we're gone?" Simpson asked. "We want to be thought about, we want to be remembered, we want to be cared about, we want to have a legacy somewhere about us."

The repairs at the site included repositioning of granite posts, headstone repairs, landscaping, erosion protection for some of the oldest stones, and a large, new granite marker engraved with a brief history of the cemetery and a poem written by Robert Frost, chosen by Nichols.

Kurt White, Brattleboro Retreat director of Ambulatory Services, mentioned in the beginning of his speech that as a therapist, he tries to use his "empathic imagination" to understand how others live their life. He said through that type of compassion, people can be helped.

"When I think of the men and women who have their final resting place here, I try to use my empathic imagination to try and bring their lives to life," said White.

Another individual at the rededication service, Calvin Moen, who is a peer advocate at the Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, said he was curious about the lives of those buried at the Retreat Cemetery and why they were laid to rest there. While he felt the rededication service was a "nice gesture," he expressed that more could be done.

"This can serve as a reminder to us that we've gotten a lot better about how we treat people, and we can certainly go a lot further in terms of not taking away people's choices," said Moen.

Employees that gathered at the rededication service on Tuesday said it provided them an opportunity to think about their work and basic human interaction. Jeffrey Corrigan, vice president of human resources at the Retreat, felt the comments and peaceful area brought him into a deep reflection.

"To me, the comments that spoke were particularly about every individual and how every individual has a full life and it's almost impossible for us to understand theirs, but how much richer our own lives would be if we could do that," Corrigan said after the service.

Dan Yates at Abbiati Monument assisted in stone restoration and supplying new stones; former Retreat Director of Facilities Kevin Duby provided stewardship of the property; Retreat facilities crew, led by John Sohl and Brad Emich, contributed and Nichols coordinated the work.

Webster-Toleno read a Carl Sandburg poem, titled, "Losers," which she said reminded her that she has equally as much in common with the "powerless than the more obvious heroes in life." She also led the group in a moment of silence and at the end of the rededication asked for "perpetual light to shine upon those who rest" there.

"Go into this day knowing you have contributed peace in our world and be inspired to continue to recognize the value of each and every human being you encounter," Webster-Toleno closed.

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275


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