The Mayor's Blue Ribbon Cemetery Committee of Portsmouth, New Hampshire


Judy Nerbonne and Richard Adams, members of the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Cemetary Committee, walk through Union Cemetery.
Photo by Deb Cram

Signs tell histories behind the headstones

By Emily Aronson

PORTSMOUTH -- Visitors to the city's four historic cemeteries no longer have to wait for a tour to learn about the people buried there.

The Mayor's Blue Ribbon Cemetery Committee recently installed signs to teach passers-by about the history lying beneath their feet. The durable blue placards highlight some of the famous and lesser-known people buried at North, Union, Pleasant Street and Point of Graves cemeteries.

"I know it's important because my backyard abuts Point of Graves, and every day I see people out there reading the signs," Judy Nerbonne said.

Nerbonne and fellow committee member Richard Adams oversaw the project and worked with local historians and librarians to find photographs and biographical information for the signs.

"Dick and I thought it was going to take a few months. It ended (up) being over a year," Nerbonne said.

The Cemetery Committee has worked to restore old headstones and holds summertime tours and storytelling events at the cemeteries.

Walking around Union Cemetery on Maplewood Avenue, Adams told of George Raynes and Frederick Fernald, 19th-century shipbuilders who were business rivals.

"You can see even in death they competed with each other," Adams said, pointing to each man's towering marble headstone.

At the adjacent North Cemetery, Adams and Nerbonne noted the evolution of gravestone carvings from colonial times, when death was depicted with images of the skull and crossbones, to the 1800s when more ornate carvings of urns, ferns and other flora were used.

The sign project was largely funded by a $5,000 grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. The committee also received $1,600 from the city's capital budget. The signs were designed by local graphic artist Susan Hamilton of Phineas Press.

Nerbonne and Adams also said the project wouldn't have been possible without many volunteers who donated materials and their historical expertise.

Learn More

To learn more about the city's historic cemeteries visit

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