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Counting Bristol's headstones takes detective work

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A MONUMENT WATCHES over Larry Gile and Donald Lathrop as they work to create an accurate record of those buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Bristol. Gile and Lathrop are working together to catalogue everybody buried in Bristol cemeteries.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell


December 3, 2007

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

BRISTOL — Taking a census of the dead may seem pretty straightforward, but two Bristol residents tallying up everyone buried in Bristol’s five cemeteries say the task involves quite a bit of detective work.

Larry Gile and Donald Lathrop know a certain person was buried in Varney Cemetery in the 1970s but they can’t find the headstone, so what’s the next step?

“Connecting all the dots there is pushing it a little bit,” Gile said.

Although Gile worked as a funeral home director all his adult life until he retired this year, he himself didn’t handle the Varney Cemetery burial in question. So, as in many situations, he and Lathrop have to rely on records.

In some cases the two Bristol men can find those records at the town offices, but they also work from half a dozen record books. Many of the records from Bristol’s history they use come from a yellowed, handwritten volume from 1895, held together mostly with Scotch tape.

Lathrop is president of the Bristol Cemetery Association, which manages Greenwood Cemetery, and Gile is the treasurer. But this census is a private project not for the cemetery association but for personal reasons.

“It’s interesting to me just because I’m running into my own ancestors down there and finding out where they were buried,” Lathrop said.

For Gile, it’s sort of a continuation of what he’s done all his life. He spent most of his professional career as a funeral home director. “It’s just interesting research,” Gile said. “It’s curiosity more than anything … The pioneers of Bristol, you know where they are.”

Bristol has five cemeteries: Briggs Hill Cemetery, Greenwood Cemetery off Route 116 west of the village, Meehan Road Cemetery, Mount St. Joseph Cemetery off Plank Road and Varney Cemetery off Hardscrabble Road.

Despite its name, the Bristol Cemetery Association is directly responsible for only the Greenwood Cemetery, but over the past year the association has been helping the town with minor work at the other cemeteries in exchange for town funds.

The census has been in progress for about three months now. Gile and Lathrop don’t know when it will be done, but when it’s ready, the information will be passed on to the town to help historians or anyone interested in tracing their genealogy back to Bristol.

“It’s part of Bristol’s history just to have a record of it,” Gile said.

A lot of that history dates back to the 18th century. Gile said that at least one Revolutionary War veteran is buried in Bristol: Amaziah Hawkins, who was buried at Briggs Hill Cemetery in the early 19th century.

Some burials in the 19th century and before can be even harder to research than the mysterious Varney burial in the 1970s. Several stones in Briggs Hill Cemetery are simply inscribed “Unknown,” or, in family plots, “Infant.”

Losing records of where a person was buried makes research hard enough, but Gile and Lathrop say that the town has even lost a whole cemetery. An 1871 map shows a cemetery in the Bristol Flats, near what is now Route 116 on the way to Starksboro, but they haven’t narrowed down the location any more closely than that.

Lathrop said that the cemetery is probably in or near a farmer’s field, and the last body was buried there in 1810. Trying to find the cemetery is complicated by the fact that the bodies were probably moved to Greenwood Cemetery at some point after the Bristol Flats cemetery was closed.

At the moment Gile and Lathrop are trying to find the cemetery in land records.

“We know where it was, but we don’t know the size or the exact location,” Lathrop said. “We haven’t given up on that.”

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