United as one — in this life and the next

Photo: Ben Garver
A single grave marker marks the gravesite of many Shakers buried on the site of Hancock Shaker Village in 1943. Photo: Ben Garver.

By Jennifer Huberdeau

Every once in a while, a headstone belonging to a member of the Hancock Shaker Village turns up in the yard of a neighboring property.

The discovery is typically made during a renovation, when a granite marker is pulled up and it bears a name or initials and a date on the underside.

The stones, when identified as belonging to the village, are picked up and neatly stacked in the basement of The Trustees building at Hancock Shaker Village, where they have sat, unceremoniously, since the first among them was put there in 1943.

Hancock Shaker Village curator Lesley Herzberg said the Shakers probably gave away the headstones to a “lot of their neighbors, who were redoing walls or walkways.”

Although the Shakers were a very spiritual community, they did not view headstones as having any religious value. The Shakers believed the spirits of the deceased had moved on to heaven and did not have any attachment to a material marker in a graveyard.

“We have one here that was used as an ironing board,” Herzberg said. “The headstones, once removed, held no religious significance to the Shakers. They were part of the material world.

“The Shakers were great at reusing and recycling. Nothing went to waste.”

Headstones removed

A single grave marker marks the gravesite of many Shakers buried on the site of Hancock Shaker Village in 1943. Photo: Ben Garver.

A single white granite monument rises from the center of the Hancock Shaker Village burial ground on Route 20 in Pittsfield, Mass. The lone marker for 276 community members buried there is a reminder of how they lived on this earthly plane — in unity.

Its inscription reads:

“In loving memory
Of members of the
Shaker Church
Who dedicated their lives
To God and to the good of
Passed to immortality.”

But the single marker to represent scores of Shaker deceased wasn’t always this way.

“Up until 1942, the Shakers always used individual markers. They didn’t all use chiseled stone markers; some used the metal ‘lollipop’ markers,” said Herzberg.

“In 1942, a directive was sent out by the central ministry at Mount Lebanon (N.Y.) that any operational communities take down the individual headstones and erect a single marker,” Herzberg said. “The idea was to have their final resting places represent how they lived — as a community, not as individuals.”

It would take a year for the small community in west Pittsfield at the Hancock town line to remove the individual markers from the burial ground. The group hired a surveyor who diligently documented the locations of the headstones, along with any initials, names and dates on them.

“We are very fortunate they documented the cemetery in 1943; it’s the only way we know who is buried there,” Herzberg said. “There are 14 gravestones that remain in the cemetery, laid flat, on the outer edges. They are not Shakers. They are people who worked for them or lived with them, who were allowed to be buried there.”

The last interment at the cemetery, she said, took place in 2007. The United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Lake Inc., which still owns the cemetery, granted the request of a woman, in her 90s at the time of her death, who had been raised in the Shaker community there.

“She was the last girl to be raised by the Hancock Shakers and she wanted to be buried here,” Herzberg said.

The grave marker of Francina Fitts was repurposed in the Laundry and Machine Shop at Hancock Shaker Village. Photo: Ben Garver


Honoring the past

A total of 43 headstones have made their way back to Hancock Shaker Village over the last five decades. Some bear only the initials of their owners, while others carry names that live on across the county: Aspinwall, Sprague, Pomeroy, and Clapp. The headstone of Mother Sarah Harrison, one of the founders of the village, and that of Postmaster Augustus W. Williams, one of the only Shakers to hold a position outside of the village, are among those held in the cellar.

It was in the cellar that Jennifer Trainer Thompson, Hancock Shaker Village’s director and CEO, first became enamored with the headstones and began thinking of ways to share them with the public.

“I saw them … just lined up and stacked, all cobwebby and in dim lighting,” she said.

“They were clearly so beautiful — hand-carved and quarried locally.

“They are beautiful objects that are reminders that the Shakers’ goal was not to complete something, but to make it as perfect as possible. Work was a form of meditative worship for the Shakers, so I’m not surprised [the headstones] are so beautiful.”




Thompson’s desire to share the headstones with the public will come to fruition on Oct. 11, during Grave Matters, a special event that begins with a cemetery tour, a stop at the Laundry and Machine shop and a trip to the basement to see the markers that are not currently on public display. The night will end in the parlor of the Victorian house that now serves as the Trustees’ office.

“It’s similar to our silo songs and even our goat yoga,” Thompson said of the unique event. “We’re trying to create new portals through which you can understand this group that lived in our community and had such a profound impact on the community around it.”

The event will end in the parlor — part of the village’s interpretive space — which holds the distinction of being one of the places the Shakers would greet visitors from the outside world.

“It’s a way to continue the conversation about this community, about religious beliefs and the burial practices of different communities,” Thompson said. “I think anyone who travels along Route 20 and sees the cemetery with its single marker or who has been to the village and seen the ironing board has some immediate questions.”

If you go…

Grave Matters

When: Thursday, Oct. 11, 7-8 p.m.
Where: Hancock Shaker Village, 1843 West Housatonic St., Pittsfield, Mass.
What: The tour begins across Route 20, away from the cluster of Shaker buildings, where a single granite stone stands in a grassy field. Join us on a grave tour – a walk to the cemetery, the Laundry and Machine shop, and the cellar to see the beautiful individual grave markers (viewable only by private visit) and learn the fascinating stories behind the slabs. Tour ends with wine and conversation in the parlor.
Tickets: $25 for non-members, $20 for members.
Information: hancockshakervillage.org or 413-443-0188

Haunted Hancock

When: Thursdays: Oct. 18 and 25, 6p.m.
Fridays: Oct. 19 and 26, 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Saturdays: Oct. 20 and 27, 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Where: Hancock Shaker Village, 1843 West Housatonic St., Pittsfield, Mass.
What: Walk through Hancock Shaker Village by lantern light; hear true tales of ghostly sighting and discover the Shakers’ role in the spiritualist movement. Tours are 90 minutes and are recommended for those aged 12 and older.
Tickets: $30 for non-members, $27 for members.
Information: hancockshakervillage.org or 413-443-0188

Similar Events

Ghost Tours at The Mount

When: Fridays in September at 5:45 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Where: The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox, Mass.
What: Creaking floors and slamming doors, fading footsteps down empty halls, tingling taps on the shoulders, spectral shapes crouched in corners or gathered in front of fireplaces long gone cold. Tricks of the imagination in an old house once inhabited by a skilled writer of ghost stories … or something else? Take a ghost tour and decide for yourself.
The 2-hour ghost tour starts at the stable and ends at the Main House. Please arrive 15 minutes early. Please note that this tour is not suitable for wheelchairs and includes about a half-mile walk with some steep areas.Dress warmly and wear sensible shoes. This spooky tour is not recommended for children under 12.
Tickets: Advance reservations for ghost tours are required. $24 for adults, $20 for ages 12 -18. If tickets are sold out for a particular evening and you’d like to be added to a waitlist, please email info@edithwharton.org.
Information: edithwharton.org

Jennifer Huberdeau is editor of UpCountry magazine. She also pens the column, “The Cottager,” for Berkshires Week and The Shires of Vermont.

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