Williams College Cemetery houses Ephs’ history

For Mission Park residents, living on the outskirts of campus has its perks. Ephs take advantage of the hammocks, the barbecue grills and the tennis and basketball courts behind their building, as well as the vast expanses of grass lawns on either side. But a place much less frequented by the student body, though also in close proximity to the first-year dorm building, is the Williams College Cemetery.

Take a walk through the rows of gravestones in the small, secluded clearing only a few steps away from the Dennett side of Mission, and it’ll feel like you’re spanning the entire campus. Familiar names jump out at you – Dodd, Hopkins, Bascom, Mears, Fitch, Griffin, Perry, Garfield, Stetson, Goodrich, etc. – serving as a reminder that there are people behind the names of the buildings that we live and learn in. Though the people that the markers and monuments stand for were some of the most influential in the College’s history, the words on their graves offer little as to what role they served on campus.

A handful of the men who chose the Cemetery to be their final resting place were actually presidents of the College. The cemetery was originally founded to serve as burial ground for President Mark Hopkins (1802-87), his descendants and the College’s faculty and trustees. He lies near monuments to President Ebenezer Fitch (1755-1833) and President Edward Griffin (1770-1837). The land was set aside more than 100 years ago in 1856 and enlarged in 1882. According to the book Williamstown and Williams College: A History written by Arthur Latham Perry, Class of 1852 and a former professor at the College, it was his idea to reserve some acreage of what was then called Missionary Park for a future cemetery, shortly after the erection of the nearby Haystack Monument. The idea was originally rejected by Hopkins, but Perry persisted, appealing the sentiment and bringing his idea to the next most powerful administrator in the College. Perry “felt strongly that such a place [in Missionary Park] would come in time to be precious in its associations, and that now was the time to secure it,” Perry reported. Perry’s eldest son, Gray Perry, was the first person to be put to rest in the Cemetery.

Most of the cemetery, however, is home to the graves of esteemed professors – faculty members with emeritus status or tenure. The words on the headstones show that these respected scholars were teachers of English, classics and history, among other disciplines. Several of the English professors fittingly distinguish their epitaphs with quotes from writers they admire: John Milton’s quote “With thee conversing I forget all time” is featured on one marker. One of the professors buried chose to outfit his gravestone with a little bit of humor. English Professor Michael Bell is relatively well known around campus posthumously for his stone’s inscription which reads “If you can read this, you’re standing on me.”

Among the College presidents and professors of long ago buried in the cemetery lie professors who have passed more recently. Beloved Professor Henry J. Burton of the Center for Development Economics, who died earlier this year, is buried in the Cemetery. As is Clara Claiborne Park, senior lecturer in English emerita, who passed away less than three years ago. A few of the tombstones denote plots of land that are empty, but reserved for spouses of professors or professors whose spouses already lie at rest and choose to remain by their side after death in an ultimate symbol of eternal love.

Unfortunately for current students, a mere affiliation with the College is not enough to earn one a spot in the graveyard. According to the College’s online employee handbook, “Burial plots in the College cemetery are available for tenured faculty and faculty with emeritus status, their spouses or domestic partners, and unmarried children.” So although undergraduate Ephs are not eligible today, nothing is stopping them from someday becoming a professor or trustee or even president. Who knows, maybe one day many years from now one of our friends will share a row in the Cemetery with Presidents Vogt and Schapiro should they choose the College as their final resting place. Or maybe, they’ll take an alternative route proposed by President Adam Falk. “It is obviously an enormous honor to be buried there when the time comes,” Falk said. “To go through that cemetery is to have kind of an extraordinary history lesson. I find it very inspirational to go through and see some of the people who are still resident on our campus in that form. My hope actually is to be cryogenically frozen and revived in the year 2930 when we’re all living on Mars.”

  • David Bennett

    What a wonderful story … thank you for this background on one of the most inspiring places on campus (particularly the view it offers of The Dome).

    One item … it was Professor Henry J. Bruton, not Burton.

    One inspiring gravestone from Professor Carl Van Duyne, who died far too early at the age of 38: Whose excellence inspired those who knew him and was surpassed only by his gift of giving.

  • Tom Gardner

    I thought I might have been the only person who routinely included a cemetery walk in my campus jaunts when I return periodically to the College! It is a fascinating place and a beautiful space as well.