She knows where the bodies lie

A Lakeville woman spends years cataloging every grave in town, from 1711 to 2003, for her book

A headstone displays a carving circa 1777. A headstone displays a carving circa 1777. (Mark Wilson)
By Oana M. Balajel
Globe Correspondent / February 5, 2009
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'I am not afraid of death," says Jean Douillette, who has immersed herself in it for a decade.

It started in 1999, when Douilette, a dentist-turned-housewife, used her interest in genealogy as a way of connecting with her community. She began documenting the epitaphs of Lakeville's 31 cemeteries, mapping the gravestones on graph paper, then recording any gravestone carving in a notebook.

She expected the job to take no more than 18 months, but her commitment to raising three children delayed completion until 2007.

The result was "Lakeville, Massachusetts, Gravestones Inscriptions 1711-2003," a 463-page genealogical gem that catalogs every person buried in the bucolic town.

"My mother told me I was crazy for doing this. She was also the first person to purchase the book when it first came out," said Douillette.

The work has also drawn praise from non-relatives. "I knew that Jean's work would be invaluable for genealogists and historians alike - including myself; since I had ancestors buried in Lakeville whose stones I could not locate," said Mary Blauss Edwards, director of the UsGenWeb site for Lakeville, in an e-mail.

Edwards, one of the volunteers in a Web-based project that provides free genealogical information for every county in the United States, is often contacted by individuals requesting photographs or transcriptions of their ancestors' gravestones. "Jean's book solves a lot of requests," Edwards said.

"It is a recent phenomenon that genealogical works have become so complex and informative," said Edwards, who also is a genealogical researcher and member of the Association for Gravestone Studies. "Jean's book could be an example for genealogical work to come."

Douillette chose the cemeteries of Lakeville simply because she lived there, but as luck would have it, she settled in a fertile area for such research.

As in most New England towns, many of Lakeville's cemeteries started out as family burial grounds, and the number of sites is comparable to nearby communities. The town's spacious and tranquil setting was a nice bonus.

The hours spent in the Lakeville cemeteries brought back comforting memories of the Spring Grove Cemetery in Douillette's hometown of Cincinnati. Spring Grove, which Jean likened to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, was the path she took to get to her grandmother's house. There, she would hear stories about her family history - tales about her ancestors who arrived in the New World on the Mayflower.

Douillette followed her father's footsteps and became a dentist, and began practicing at the US Air Force base in Glendale, Ariz.

She met her husband, Alan Douillette, while attending church groups there. In 1994, they moved to Lakeville to be near Alan's family in Brockton.

As a stay-at-home mother, she began researching her relatives. Soon, she began making contacts with genealogists from around the country and volunteered to assist their research in Eastern Massachusetts. During one of those projects, she detected gaps in information and became inspired to record all grave inscriptions in Lakeville.

She wanted to make her research comprehensive and accessible to people who could not come to Massachusetts to research their ancestors. "I also wanted to preserve the information before time and weather obliterated the inscriptions or destroyed the stones," she said.

Some cemeteries consisted of as few as three graves, and she could compile all the information in a day. But it took weeks to complete sites as large as the Thompson Hill Cemetery, the burial site for members of the Lakeville United Church of Christ. The oldest gravestone there dates back to 1711 for "A Child of Elkanah Leonard."

"It is amazing this stone, close to 300 years old, is still very readable," Douillette said on a recent visit to Thompson Hill, as she demonstrated how she took photos of the gravestones.

Because some stones faced north, she had to position a wall mirror, built on an easel, to reflect the sunlight onto the carvings at a low angle and obtain a clear image for the photo.

Her book is cataloged into 31 chapters, organized alphabetically by cemetery. Each chapter includes photographs of the cemetery, a description of how to locate it, and a meticulous map on where each grave is located.

The book includes all markings on the stones, including the deceased's surname listed alphabetically, birth year, death year, and supplementary carvings. Whenever possible, Douillette tried to confirm the information on the carvings.

"Jean was always researching town records in order to get the correct information," said Lakeville Town Clerk Janet Tracy. "Her work is so complete and concise."

Initially, Douillette photographed only landscapes, but her purchase of a digital camera in 2002 motivated her to photograph every headstone in the 31 cemeteries. All 6,000 are included in "Photographs of Lakeville, Massachusetts, Gravestone 1711- 2003," a DVD- ROM released early last month.

The DVD also earned the admiration of Edwards, who said it "offers wonderful images of the stones, illustrating the wonderful art and talents of both early and modern New England stone-carvers."

Douillette, too, was enthralled by the changes in style over time. Headstones, for example, featured simple faces in the 1700s, but occasionally "sprouted" wings in the 1800s. Poems and biographical information were common on headstones in the 19th century, but for most of the 20th century, the urn-and-willow motif was often carved on white marble, replacing words. In the last part of the 20th century, there was greater variety in the shapes and materials used for headstones.

"There is a visible progression in style," she said, "but there are also differences between the styles of the gravestone carvers, and there are a variety of carvers."

Having self-published her book and DVD, Douillette doesn't expect to recoup her costs. She calls the book a "labor of love," a project that has encouraged her to break away from her shy self and mature into a computer whiz/author. Next month, she is scheduled to appear at the Lakeville Historical Society and give a second lecture about her work.

That recognition in the community, with her reputation as Lakeville's grave detective and ancestral storyteller, may be her most enduring accomplishments.

Pointing to her book, Douillette said, "I have served my purpose to humanity."

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