Call Us: 508-441-4622

The Naked and the Dead in New Bedford

Close-up of the new gates at Oak Grove cemetery.

You know a city is firmly on the rebound when even the cemeteries are looking good.

Last week, I happened to walk by Oak Grove Cemetery on Parker Street – and stopped short. Because a few short years ago, this cemetery was encased in chain link fencing.

But now, the chain link is gone and a fetching new gate greets visitors.

It may seem strange to read, “greets visitors,” but cemeteries suffer from a PR problem in some cities, although New Bedford is better at recognizing the public, green space value of them than other places.

A day at the cemetery

Cemetery tours are weekly happenings in New York City – with its historic Trinity, Greenwood and Woodlawn cemeteries. And here in New Bedford, the Preservation Society ensures the dead get their due with semi-annual tours throughout the city.

The last was at Rural Cemetery last October, and it focused on the arts community that once tread the earth here before heading six-feet under. No pun is intended when I write that history came alive during the tour, as the Preservation Society featured folks portraying some of the deceased members of the 19th century creative community in period costume by their gravestones.

It wasn’t ghoulish at all – but good fun and a good history lesson. (The New Bedford Preservation Society offers some more history during tonight’s AHA! New Bedford with a Walking Tour of the neighborhood west of County Street. Meet at the Wamsutta Club at the corner of County and Union at 6:00 p.m. to take part in the free tour.)

As a sign of civic health and improved civic infrastructure, cemetery gates may be at the bottom of the list, but as beautiful green spaces in an urban environment, they certainly deserve their just rewards in the hereafter as well as here and now.

Eating and cavorting with corpses

Actually, back in the 19th century – before cities developed sophisticated park systems – cemeteries were used for recreation and even picnicking, as this recent Atlas Obscura article details.

Before the Preservation Society tour last October, I discovered Rural Cemetery on my bike and frequented it many times for some traffic-free cycling. And, Groundwork! member Mindy Wallis has long extolled the virtue of a peaceful walk through the aforementioned Oak Grove cemetery – not too far from both her home and Groundwork!

A few years back, I slipped through the chain link and toured Oak Grove on a mission. I was in search of the grave of Edward Robinson, father of infamous former New Bedford resident, Hetty Green.

Robinson was a roguish sort, which I find attractive in a person, and wanted to pay homage to his reputation as a rapscallion.

Sure enough, nestled under one of the many stunning trees which populate Oak Grove (and almost all New Bedford cemeteries, save Sacred Heart due to its proximity to the airport) was the headstone of Edward Robinson.

Somehow, seeing his grave made him seem more alive than simply reading about his dubious exploits in a book.

Satisfied, I squeezed back out through the chain link – but now that Robinson and his fellow travelers have some nifty new hardware to ease their journey toward the pearly gates, I just may have to pay the old sport another visit.

NOTE: Apologies to Norman Mailer for using the title of his celebrated novel as clickbait!

Steven Froias