Cemeteries of Mount Desert
October and the buildup to Halloween tend to conjure up spooky images of jack-o-lanterns, black cats, and cemeteries. But here in Mount Desert, there’s nothing to be scared of when it comes to the nearly 30 cemeteries and family burial sites within its borders. They are part of some 110 sites across MDI and the Cranberry Isles that serve as places of peace, reflection, and love.
In a region that takes so much pride in its history, it’s no surprise that an incredibly detailed record of each cemetery exists both online and in print. Tom Vining wrote and continues to update (last updated in June 2014 but corrections and additions are welcomed) Cemeteries of Cranberry Isles and the Towns of Mount Desert Island and its accompanying website. Each cemetery has a record of nearly every person interred there, some with photos. The website makes it easy to browse this information to find anyone from your own family to veterans as far back as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
While exploring these listings, you might spot some of the more famous residents of Mount Desert’s cemeteries, like Abraham Somes, the first settler of European descent on MDI in 1762, Marguerite Youcenar, the first woman elected to the Académie Française, or Theodore Roosevelt III, grandson of Teddy Roosevelt. All three can be found in Brookside Cemetery in Somesville along with generations of descendants from long-standing local families of Somes, Fernald, Pray, and many more.
10 miles southeast of Brookside lies Seal Harbor Cemetery. Unless you grew up in Seal Harbor or know someone who was buried there, you may not have come across it before. Tucked in a sunny opening along the Jordan Pond Road just before it meets up with Stanley Brook Road, the cemetery has been around since 1896 when 10 locals banded together to create it. All 10 of them are buried on the grounds under surnames that still linger today, like Candage and Smallidge.
Seal Harbor Cemetery has been lovingly managed by Steve Pinkham for the last decade. “I became the director after I missed a meeting,” Steve jokes as he sets his clippers down after trimming a hydrangea bush in the middle of the cemetery. He and the rest of the five-member board of directors are year-round residents who all have someone buried in the cemetery. “It’s part of the bylaws. Everyone on the board has to either own land in Seal Harbor or have someone buried here,” explains Steve. “But like everything else, it’s becoming harder to get people who want to do it.”
With such a long history, there are headstones here that have seen better days. Thankfully, island resident and stonemason Clayton Strout stepped in to repair some of the worst ones. Along with the help of his brother who took a course in gravestone repair, they scrubbed and epoxied several stones from the 19th century and plan to keep going. A headstone for a Civil War soldier who died in 1864 shines as brightly as many of the newer stones thanks to the Strouts and Steve, who goes around a couple of times a year to spray them with D/2 cleaner and give them a good scrub with a plastic boat brush.
The cemetery’s hidden location means that most visitors tend to just stumble upon it. Even tourists who are on their way to a trailhead or to have popovers at Jordan Pond House will wander through the woods or down the path and start exploring the headstones. “I’m amazed at how different people react to it,” says Steve.
Surrounded by tall, striking pines and beautifully manicured landscaping, it’s no wonder folks stop and look. Steve visits the cemetery every day to make sure it stays in tip-top shape. His son, Jake Pinkham, also lends a hand, and a springtime cemetery cleanup day sees wider participation from Seal Harbor residents to get the grounds spiffed up before a rise in visitors on Memorial Day. “We want to make it as easy as possible when people come to visit their loved ones,” Steve says.
This care and compassion extend through every aspect of a resident’s relationship with the Seal Harbor Cemetery. Steve, with his wife and fellow board member Karen Pinkham, meet with folks to help them choose their final resting place, carefully marking out each plot with strings and landscaping flags. Karen has a thick binder with detailed information on each and every plot that they use to guide this sensitive process. When a resident passes away, Steve and Karen get everything ready with speed and precision. “The last thing you want is to make someone wait when the time comes,” Steve says.
While the cemetery is a place to mark the past, Steve is also keeping an eye on the future. When he was a kid, the cemetery had beautiful vistas of Day Mountain, which looms on the easterly horizon. His next goal is to bring some of those views back, which will surely add to the majesty of the property. There’s also a swath of land on the north end of the property that Steve, Jake, and Steve’s brother have cleared and developed over the last couple of years. He wants it to mimic the other end of the cemetery with a mix of headstones, shrubs, and trees.
Like many of the island cemeteries, Seal Harbor Cemetery is run by donations only. Financial support is needed to allow these treasured places to continue to stand as testaments to our shared history and sense of community for many more generations. Contact your town office or the Mount Desert Island Historical Society for more information on how to get involved.