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Willa Cather's Gravesite in Jaffrey, New Hampshire

Willa Cather's Gravesite in Jaffrey, New Hampshire

Looking east towards the Meetinghouse.
Gravesite with footstones.

Willa Cather was buried in the Old Burying Ground in the spring of 1947, soon after her death from a stroke on April 24, at the age of 73. She had requested that her partner Edith Lewis make burial arrangements in Jaffrey. Their friends and innkeepers of the Shattuck Inn, George and Eleanor Austermann, were able to secure a gravesite in the southwest corner, adjacent to the historic Jaffrey Meetinghouse.

Cather first came to Jaffrey thirty years before, in 1917, and over the next few decades returned for many autumn writing retreats at the Shattuck Inn at the base of Mount Monadnock. She was often accompanied by Edith Lewis on their way back from Grand Manan before returning to New York.

Built in 1910, with a nearby "Annex" added later for overflow guests, the Shattuck was a destination hotel for extended stays. Since the early nineteenth century, Mount Monadnock has attracted artists, writers, and intellectuals to the region, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, George deForest Brush, and many others who lived or summered around it. The MacDowell arts colony, where Cather was a colonist in 1926, is located in nearby Peterborough.

Cather's letters reveal many references to her time in Jaffrey and that she always enjoyed returning to her "old resting place" at the Shattuck Inn. She wrote her brother Roscoe that her preference was for the sloping, low-ceiled rooms on the third floor and the space reminded her of her "rose-bower" bedroom in Red Cloud. Edith Lewis describes their rooms—often requesting the same adjoining one on the third floor of the inn—and the Jaffrey experience in her memoir, Willa Cather Living; A Personal Record (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953):

"They had sloping ceilings, like her attic room in the old days in Red Cloud, and on the roof directly overhead she could hear the rain in wet weather. Her windows looked out over woods and juniper pastures toward Mount Monadnock, with its very individual outline. . . . That first summer the Inn was crowded with guests, and to give her greater quiet and seclusion two Pittsburgh friends, Miss Lucy Hine and Miss Acheson, who rented a place called High Mowing not far from the Shattuck Inn, had the idea of putting up a tent in their meadow-land for Willa Cather to work in. This turned out an ideal arrangement. The tent was about half a mile from The Inn, by an unused wood road, and across a pasture or two. Willa Cather loved this solitary half-mile walk through the woods, and found it the best possible prelude to a morning of work."

Cather generally spent mornings writing and afternoons hiking the trails on and around Mount Monadnock. One likely amble led to the Meetinghouse Common, a mile from the Shattuck Inn at the old center of Jaffrey (for a time known as Jaffrey Center and with its own post office until the early 1990s). One of the few known photographs of Cather and Lewis together was actually taken on the Common, in 1926 [now in the University of New Brunswick archives].

This picturesque area of Jaffrey is one of New Hampshire's earliest historic districts and was actively preserved in the 1920s by the Jaffrey Center Village Improvement Society. They saved many buildings and Colonial Revival-ized the village—as seen today in the continued prevalence of white painted clapboards and bottle green shutters.

With the exception of the raising of the Shattuck Inn in 1994, this area of Jaffrey is preserved today much as it was during Cather's visits. In addition to the beloved Jaffrey Meetinghouse, there are over thirty eighteenth and nineteenth century dwellings, the First Congregational Church, Melville Academy (now a museum), and the Monadnock Inn. Like the Shattuck, this was another turn-of-the-century inn for guests who arrived by train from Boston and New York. 

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Jaffrey Center also became a popular summer destination for professors from New England colleges who purchased homes for academic breaks and retirement. Residents Dr. and Mrs. Seelye Bixler, Professor and Mrs. Ernest Bernbaum, and Dr. Theodore A. Greene were among those in attendance at Cather's graveside service in 1947. Of note is that summer the Amos Fortune Forum was established at the Jaffrey Meetinghouse in honor of a former slave and prosperous African American Jaffrey tanner who left a bequest for Jaffrey education. [Fortune and his wife Violate were also buried in the Old Burying Ground—in 1801 and 1802.]

Cather wrote that she felt she did her best work in Jaffrey and her letters written from her many stays reveal her contentment and great pleasure in her productive visits. She found the clear air intoxicating and Mount Monadnock a comforting presence. Her gravesite overlooks the famed mountain to the west, just as her rooms had done at the Shattuck Inn.

Many have speculated as to why Cather chose Jaffrey to be buried over anywhere else, including her childhood home of Red Cloud where she could have been near family members. In reading Cather's own words and experiences in the Monadnock region, the question is perhaps, "Why not?" Edith Lewis was buried alongside Cather in 1972. 

Today visitors walk the well-trodden steps to the gravesite where they often leave stones and other mementos on her headstone. It has her birth year as 1876, a change she often made herself, which was three years later than her actual birth year of 1873. It is also inscribed with part of the famed passage from My Ántonia when Jim Burden is leaning against a pumpkin in his grandmother's Nebraska prairie garden. The cosmic passage is both fitting and hopeful of a certain immortality, which Willa Cather's contribution to American literature has attained:

"...that is happiness; to be dissolved Into something complete and great."

Additional Sources
  • "Willa: Writing in the Wilderness," by Cathy R. Schen details more about Cather's Jaffrey years. Read her article HERE in the Willa Cather Review, Volume 61.2: Spring 2019, p. 22.
  • "Willa Cather, The Old Burying Ground, Jaffrey, New Hampshire," by Catherine Seiberling Pond, The New Territory, "Literary Landscapes," February, 2021. Read the article HERE.