A nice, quiet neighborhood


Kyle Gagnon

Plot Cemetery in midwinter

A thin layer of ice covers the snow that sits upon the Plot Cemetery in Johnson, Vermont. Bright beams of sunlight roar through the branches of the sleeping maples and birches. They dot the snow with a Dalmatian pattern when observing the shadier places within the old, stone wall that encompasses the grounds.

The headstones date back to the early 1800s. Many of the markers are made of thin, white, marble slabs. Some of these stones are broken and others have been mended after clearly having been in two pieces at some point in their long lives.

Our feet crunch through that thin layer of ice as we move from stone to stone, reading what we can from the ones whose writing has not yet eroded past the point of legibility.

There is not much traffic on the adjacent and aptly named Cemetery Road. If you aren’t from around here, you would be inclined to call this the middle of nowhere. Old cemeteries like this one can be found throughout the state, but the Plot Cemetery is a scenic place for graveyard enthusiasts in the Johnson area. Its undulating grounds call back to times that seem ancient by this millennial’s standards. The hills that the graves sit upon stand much closer to God than the low wall of stones that mark the Plot’s borders. In the summer, the well-kept grass is a marvel when you consider the great slopes and imperfections that a groundskeeper must navigate just to keep the Plot in shape.

The sky seems bigger now, in winter, than it did upon my autumn visit. The leaves have fallen and the bare trees make way for the wonderful visage of the hills beyond. The view to the northwest is what I consider Johnson’s signature look. Prospect Rock and the rolling hills that surround it act as a shield from a portion of the glorious sunsets that have been spoiling the locals since long before the Plot welcomed its first inhabitants.

After the sun sets, an intruder would be brave to last more than a few minutes within the Plot’s otherwise friendly confines. Even by daylight, there is something slightly off about this hallowed place. I was unable to put my finger on it until I spoke with Duncan Hastings, who was the Municipal Administrator for the town and village of Johnson from 2002 – 2016.

He also holds a place on the board of the Johnson Historical Society and is contracted by the town to maintain the headstones of several cemeteries, including Plot Cemetery. “You’ll notice that all the gravestones are kind of at an odd angle given the angle of the graveyard to the road,” Hastings said. “And that is because gravestones were laid from east to west, the orientation being the rising and setting of the sun. That is why the stones seem to be at an awkward angle and not parallel to the road.”

Like Hill House in Shirley Jackson’s famous novel, the Plot has angles that just aren’t quite right. I would imagine that they would creep out even the bravest adventurer alone and under the cover of night. Hill House, however, was deliberately created to disorient its guests, whereas the Plot happened to achieve the effect of a twisted funhouse simply by chance: east-to-west orientation of the stones paired with an adjacent road that doesn’t care about the sun. If you were not able to survey the entire site from the top of its central hill, you might just get turned around.

One also can’t help but notice how incredibly young many of the buried are. It seems there is almost an equal number of children as there are adults at the Plot. We dusted off stone after stone only to find an infant buried mere feet away from a toddler sibling.

According to popular cemetery blogger and enthusiast, Traci Rylands, “In 1880, almost 22 of every 100 children born in the U.S. died before they reached their first birthday. Ten years later, that rate was 15 percent. In 1900, more than one in every 10 infants still died before the age of one, not including stillbirths.” The lack of effective medicine left children vulnerable to ailments, which present little threat today. Illnesses such as cholera and the flu often came with dire consequences attached to them for the children who had to try to endure.

That is not to say that there isn’t a beauty in it all when you take in the Plot’s entire picture. The place where one is laid to rest for all time. The faces of the markers fade over time. Many of the marble facades can no longer be read, but their symbol is eternal.

Places like these don’t change much. The trees that line the timeless stone walls grow slowly, perceptible only to those who have succumbed to time itself. Dry Ridge and Prospect Rock still stand strong to the west and north, marking the borders of Johnson dutifully. The grass grows, the leaves fall, and the snow piles up just as it always has, does, and will. The names on the fully occupied graveyard will stay the same, too. They will wear away and most likely be forgotten more and more as the years roll on, but they’ll always be there. Johnson’s Old Catholic Cemetery, Evergreen Ledge Cemetery, and others will live on, too– perhaps not with the same appeal as the Plot, with its views and quiet dirt road that runs not quite parallel to the markers that dot its surface. The Plot will remain unchanged as the town of Johnson grows or declines, as the college thrives or fails, as the seasons ebb and flow, and as the various characters come and go, as all characters do.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Plot Cemetery is that even the local expert, Duncan, only knew so much about it. The internet was barren with the exception of a handful of records that stated no more than the names on the headstones and some basic inscription details. The Johnson Historical Society had more information than most, but still did not have the bombshell that I was hoping for. Perhaps that is just the nature of a two-hundred-year-old cemetery. At a certain point, there just isn’t much left to say.
Hastings had to admit that “I don’t know as much about Plot Cemetery as I do about Whitting Hill Cemetery or even Evergreen Cemetery… Obscure isn’t the best word for Plot, but it is kind of out there, you know?” It seems that the Plot holds considerable mystery, even for those who may know it the most.
Whether the details of Plot Cemetery will fade into obscurity, or somebody truly determined to unearth the deep dark secrets that lie within its stony walls will come forth, only time will tell. It is odd, the youthful nature of so many of those buried juxtaposed against the ever-aging burial ground that dates back roughly two centuries. While the Plot’s inhabitants stay the same, the cemetery trudges on through time, carrying its denizens onward.