Grounds for education
By Emily Aronson
March 21, 2005 PORTSMOUTH - For Audrey and Irwin Bierhans the city’s cemeteries are like having a free museum in your own backyard.
From the intricate designs carved into tombstones to the historical figures buried at the city’s four cemeteries, the Bierhans said there is a wealth of knowledge one can learn by walking through a cemetery.
"I feel cemeteries should be regarded as more than just a spooky place," said Audrey Bierhans, who is chairman of the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Cemetery Committee.
Aside from maintaining and restoring old tombstones at North Burial Ground, Union Cemetery, Point of Graves and Pleasant Street Cemetery, the committee has hosted a number of historical programs, including last summer’s "Spirits 2004: Bringing the Dead to Life."
Now the couple hopes to expand the committee’s work into city schools, by working with the school department to arrange in-class presentations and field trips to the four city cemeteries.
"It’s using the cemeteries as a way to teach history," Audrey Bierhans said.
The Bierhans presented their idea to the School Board on Tuesday and said they talked with Assistant Superintendent Robert Lister about getting support from school principals.
Although no formal program has been established, Irwin said class trips to the cemeteries could teach children about the famous people buried in the cemetery, as well as the artists who carved the tombstones.
Local historical figures, as well as some of the country’s founding fathers are buried in Portsmouth. At North Cemetery the graves of William Whipple, who signed the Declaration of Independence, and John Langdon, who signed the Constitution, can be found, Audrey Bierhans said.
A number of the cemeteries’ tombstones were made by famous Boston-area carvers such as William Mumford, John Noyes and Joseph Lamson.
The designs on the stones also demonstrate artistic periods, from the Puritanical skull and crossbones images to later-day cherub and angel pictorials, Irwin said.
"It really gives kid the opportunity to appreciate this early art," Audrey Bierhans said.
Irwin Bierhans also noted the hands-on aspect of cemeteries, where children can get up close to each of the historical markers.
"You go into a museum and you can’t touch the pictures, but you go into a cemetery and you can touch the tombstones," he said.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
Anyone interested in learning more about the city’s historical cemeteries or joining the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Cemetery Committee can call 436-5096 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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