Charlie Marchant, Cemetery Man
By Sarah Wolfe, Photographed by James Powers
Editor’s note: Nineteen years ago, in the Spring 1998 Vermont Life magazine, a 5 page article entitled Gone, But Not Forgotten: The Vermont Old Cemetery Association Fights to Keep the State’s Burial Grounds Alive by Chris Granstrom, and photographed by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur, appeared. An inset story in that article spotlighting VOCA member Charlie Marchant, remains just as cogent and inspiring today.
Charlie Marchant haunts Vermont graveyards.
In Windham County, where he lives, Marchant knows the backroad cemeteries so well you would think he had cleared the land and buried the departed himself. He also knows about cemeteries he has not visited and can lecture informally on the notable features. such as the famous people buried there and the monuments of architectural significance.
Marchant, 51, is secretary and past president of the Vermont Old Cemetery Association. His interest in graveyards is practical as well as intellectual — he earns a chunk of his living restoring them. Hired by a town or historical society, he goes to work to resettle and repair broken stones, compile a list of the names of the buried, and prepare maps of the graveyard. Some towns have used his maps in conjunction with town vital records to discover whether headstones have fallen over, then gradually disappeared over the decades. When that happens, Marchant uses a rod to feel for parts of a broken stone before excavating.
Often, Marchant reconstructs a bit of Vermont’s history as he works in a cemetery. When he repairs stones, for instance, he notes the carver’s initials, which often appear at the bottom of the tablet, the part that vanishes when the stone sinks into the ground. He records these initials and then does research on the carver and his art. The earliest stones in Vermont cemeteries were carved from fieldstone, he says. Most of these have not survived. After fieldstone was no longer used, carvers began using slate.
“If you don’t find slate, the cemetery isn’t very old,” he says.
If there is an unusual kind of stone used for early burials, it generally signifies the existence of a nearby quarry. Around the tiny Windham County town of Athens, for example, the headstones are made of local soapstone.Marchant believes that cemeteries are in his blood; his great uncle was a cemetery sexton in Connecticut for almost 80 years and Marchant helped him trim around the stones on his hands and knees, with scissors. Although he has long been cemetery commissioner in Townshend, where he lives with his wife, Barbara, he hardly sought the job. In the early 1970s, he fell asleep at Town Meeting, when offices were being filled.
"I was nominated by the guy sitting next to me. I heard my name being called and I woke up. This guy said, ‘It's no big deal, don't worry about it.' Later I found out I was elected to a five-year term on the commission."
When he is not kneeling at the graveside of some long for gotten town dweller, Marchant is a part-time history teacher at Leland & Gray Union High School in Townshend. He has served stints at the school as vice-principal and principal. It is likely that his particular slant on history — with a bias toward the lives of ordinary folk — fuels his interest in graveyards, which are, after all, the places where the humble lie down with the lofty.
On occasion, he brings a casket handle found by a gravedigger to class to see whether students can identify the object.
"They think it's furniture or a cane handle. And they always freak out that they've touched a casket. It's a good attention-getting device."
He also asks students to fabricate biographies of the dead.
Marchant values the old, but is also robust and forward-looking. His view is always unique and often funny, though he never sets out to please the crowd.
On the subject of graveyards, stamp him a staunch conservative. He has met people who think old cemeteries should be allowed to return to nature, an idea he finds appalling.
“Society is obligated to maintain the intent of those who are buried there,” he says. "I tell them, 'you have no moral right to ignore that obligation.'
And what are his plans, when his moment arrives? "I'm thinking of being cremated," he says. "It's cheaper and it takes up less space.”