Cemetery of the Week #58: Swan Point Cemetery

Swan Point Cemetery
585 Blackstone Boulevard
Providence, Rhode Island 02906
Telephone: 410-272-1314
Founded: 1846
Size: 210 acres
Number of interments: approximately 40,000
Open: Depending on the weather, Swan Point is open daily from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. during Daylight Savings. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.

Founded on just 60 acres in 1846, Rhode Island’s Swan Point Cemetery absorbed people who had been previously buried in the West Burial Ground and other earlier graveyards around Providence. The oldest section of the cemetery, overlooking the Seekonk River, contains graves that date back as early as 1722.

In 1886, landscape Chicago-based architect H.W.S. Cleveland was hired to develop Blackstone Boulevard through the cemetery. He’s responsible for the wall of large boulders that front Blackstone Boulevard for more than a mile, which was completed in 1900. In 1903, the Butler Avenue trolley car was extended to the cemetery, where a fieldstone shelter was constructed for riders. Many people came out just to walk the grounds.

The Aylsworth family monument

Even now, Swan Point’s chief draw is the beauty of its landscaping, which varies from lawn to forest trees to rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, and other flowering shrubs. In all it contains more than 200 kinds of trees and shrubs, most of them labeled. In the spring, daffodils gild the old section by the river.

Swan Point is full of lovely Victorian statuary, as well. Twenty-three former governors of Rhode Island are buried in Swan Point, each under a suitably grand monument.

Also among the better known people buried at Swan Point Cemetery is Major Sullivan Balou, wounded in the first battle of Bull Run, whose beautiful farewell letter to his wife featured in Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary.

H. P. Lovecraft’s tombstone

Swan Point’s most famous permanent resident is Howard Pillips Lovecraft. In New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide, published in 1975, Andrew Kull wrote that Lovecraft’s grave was “somewhat difficult to find, since the name is inscribed on the monument of another family.” He recommended “cultists” ask at the office. When I visited in 2002, I thought my husband and I might be regarded as weirdoes, but the secretary treated our request as a common occurrence. She pulled out a drawer full of manila files. Inside Lovecraft’s file waited a stack of maps, already copied. She traced our route and sent us on our way without batting an eye. “Look for an obelisk that says Phillips,” she directed. “He’s right behind that.”

We took the main drive through the cemetery, swung around the 40-foot-tall Barnaby column — topped by a blindingly white muse — zigged and zagged briefly, then saw the Phillips monument directly ahead. The original monument on the plot belonged to Lovecraft’s grandparents. The back of it held Lovecraft’s parents’ name and dates. At the bottom, he was remembered as Howard P. Lovecraft, “Their Son.”

A smaller stone rose nearby. After New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide saw print, Dirk W. Mosig — at that time, the leading authority on Lovecraft — solicited contributions to erect an individual tombstone. He unveiled it during a small ceremony in 1977. The low red granite marker spelled out Howard Phillips Lovecraft, August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1938, and added the epitaph, “I am Providence.”

Those words came from a letter Lovecraft wrote to his Aunt Lillian, eventually published in 2000 in Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Lovecraft wrote, “I will be dogmatic only to the extent of saying that it is New England I must have — in some form or other. Providence is part of me — I am Providence…”

One might have suspected that Howard Phillips Lovecraft was destined for oblivion. As a child, frequent psychosomatic illnesses kept him from school. He learned to recite poetry at the age of two and read the Arabian Nights (scarcely a children’s book) by the time he was five, so he acquired his view of the world — and vocabulary — from books, not from people.

Despite his inexperience with the world, “The Beast in the Cave,” his first fiction, appeared in 1905, when he was 15. Twelve years later, he still lived with his mother, which allowed him to write his gloomy tales in peace. Inspired by the fantasies of Lord Dunsany, Lovecraft wrote his first novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, in 1926. He was 36. Eleven years later, he’d be dead. Except for a brief sojourn in New York City, he spent his entire life in Providence.

Most of his fiction appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and went uncollected into book form until after his death. Despite that, he is considered the 20th-century Poe, a pioneer in combining elements of horror and science fiction.

When Mason and I visited Swan Point Cemetery on a lovely April day, offerings piled on Lovecraft’s granite block. In addition to pennies lined carefully along the top of the gravestone, someone had left white pebbles. A bouquet of iris and ferns crumbled in the grass.

The air in Swan Point was vibrant with birdsong, fragrant from the exquisite elderly fruit trees laden with blossoms. The cemetery gave the sensation that life continues, despite darkness, despair, and death.

Useful links:
Swan Point Cemetery’s homepage

My review of Famous and Curious Cemeteries

A PDF birding list of more than 100 species seen at Swan Point is available on the cemetery’s website. In fact, a book called The Birds of Swan Point Cemetery is available from Amazon: The Birds of Swan Point Cemetery

Other garden cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #12: Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan

Cemetery of the Week #17: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York

Cemetery of the Week #28: Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts

Cemetery of the Week #31: Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Cemetery of the Week #42:  Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

Cemetery of the Week #53: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

Cemetery of the Week #55: Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California

Cemetery of the Week #57: Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. My science fiction trilogy, The Dangerous Type, will be published by Night Shade in 2015. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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5 Responses to Cemetery of the Week #58: Swan Point Cemetery

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