What would you leave at Emily Dickinson’s grave?

The poet continues to draw fans, and visitors, long after her death

  • Items left at the grave stone of Emily Dickinson in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Items left at the grave stone of Emily Dickinson in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Items left at the grave stone of Emily Dickinson in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Items left at the grave stone of Emily Dickinson in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Items left at the grave stone of Emily Dickinson in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Items left at the grave stone of Emily Dickinson in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/31/2018 12:39:28 AM

AMHERST — Stones, a sprig of lavender, a jam jar, alcohol nips, pencils and pens. These are just some of the things left at Emily Dickinson’s grave, but it is far from the only grave site in the Pioneer Valley where people leave mementos.

“Cemeteries are more active than a lot of people think,” said Alan Snow, director for the tree and grounds division at Amherst’s Department of Public Works.

The division oversees maintenance at three of Amherst’s cemeteries: North Cemetery, South Cemetery and West Cemetery. 

West Cemetery is where Dickinson, the world-famous poet, is buried, and Snow said that they see constant activity at the site.

“For her grave, it’s pretty much continuous throughout the year,” he said.

Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, has lived in Amherst for 30 years. “People have been leaving things there for at least that long,” she said, and guesses that the tradition extends back to the 1930s or 1940s. New editions of her poetry and biographical treatments were published in that time period, around the centenary of her birth in 1930, causing an increase in her popularity. The grave markers were also changed at that time by her niece.

Wald said that there’s a wide variety of objects left at the Amherst poet’s grave, and that while sometimes these acts of remembrance are spontaneous, other times they are very deliberate. She also noted the pens and pencils that people leave at Dickinson’s grave site, which she described as an act of solidarity.

“One writer to another,” she said.

People also leave candles, fresh flowers and acorns for the poet.

On Wednesday, stones and a seashell could be found on the grave of Dickinson’s younger sister, Lavinia Dickinson, who championed the publication of her Emily’s poetry following her death in 1886.

“We owe her a great deal,” Wald said.

Snow, of Amherst’s DPW, said that people tend to leave items at graves more frequently around holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans Day. He also said that activity isn’t particularly higher around Halloween. In warmer months, people have been known to sleep in the town cemeteries as well.

Asked about the weirdest things people have left at Amherst grave sites, Snow responded, “I probably can’t say.”

Suffice it to say, he’s seen a lot. People have left everything from golf clubs to toys at the grave sites of those who have died young.

Snow added, in the Amherst cemeteries, they leave such items in place unless “it physically gets in the way of us doing maintenance.”

The Northampton DPW said that of the objects left at city-maintained grave sites, most are flowers. However, personal items like fishing poles, golf clubs and baseball caps have also been left. The city has regulations for the use of its cemeteries on its website, although it was noted that such regulations are loosened when it comes to the graves of the recently deceased.

Rich Parasiliti serves as the superintendent of forests, parks and cemeteries division of the Northampton Department of Public Works, and he has been maintaining the city’s cemeteries since 2004.

He noted a fishing pole as the most striking item he’s found in his time doing this work, but said that people tend to leave items with a connection to their loved ones, including coins, lighters, small figurines and piled stones.

“Any kind of a connection,” he said.

Westhampton has one town-maintained cemetery, and the man in charge of maintaining it, Ed Thornton, says there isn’t much activity there, even on Halloween.

“It’s quiet and peaceful,” Thornton said.

But Dickinson’s grave gets a little more foot traffic.

Wald said that leaving objects at the poet’s grave site is an act of acknowledging the influence of Dickinson and drawing her closer.

“Emily Dickinson’s poetry will always have that power over us,” she said. “She means something different to me almost every day.”

Wald also said that she has left something at Dickinson’s grave — but she declined to say what it was.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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