BELLOWS FALLS—Gail Golec really digs graves.
Just not with a shovel.
Golec, a professional archaeologist, told The Commons, “Because I’m a huge nerd, I love going to cemeteries to just walk around, mostly the earlier ones.”
“The art, the carvings, are beautiful. I like studying the names and the epitaphs,” she said.
Golec has “always been fascinated by cemeteries,” even as a child growing up in North Walpole and Alstead, N.H.
“My family are good storytellers and joke-tellers,” she said, “and I lived where these stories happened. I’ve always liked to sit and listen to what used to be, what happened here.”
Golec recently decided to share her interests with the podcast-listening public — and, soon, with a live audience — in a podcast, The Secret Life of Death.
She writes, produces, and records the show herself, using the production studio at the Bellows Falls community radio station WOOL-FM, where she is a member. Golec brings in local voice actors and musicians to bring the stories alive.
“WOOL was really helpful. I couldn’t have done it without them,” she said.
Early last year, Golec released “Epidemic,” the first episode of the series.
Structured like an in-depth news feature one would hear on public radio, “Epidemic” begins in a small cemetery in Acworth, N.H., at the grave sites of two families, the Grears and the McColoms.
In the 20-minute episode, Golec addresses a variety of aspects of life in 1812 for the European colonists, including illness, disease, the state of medicine, and what happens to women when their husbands die and every single item in their homes gets sold off, down to the last lamp and spoon.
In listening to “Epidemic,” “you’re sitting with the idea of being any of those people and dealing with what they faced,” said Golec. “Especially the women. They could own no property, and their husband and kids are dead, and they have to hope somebody takes care of them.”
“They were really vulnerable,” she said.
On Sunday, April 29, Golec will premiere the next installment of The Secret Life of Death in front of a live studio audience at Stage 33 Live’s “Sunday Evenings in April” series, at 33 Bridge St. in Bellows Falls.
The episode, “Graffiti,” begins at the Dodge Tavern. According to the show’s website, the tavern “was built around 1800 and needless to say, it has got some skeletons in its closets (if turn-of-the-century Federal-style homes had closets).”
“A place like this is full of historic clues to its past: from architecture to archaeology, we’ll look at it all,” including a gravestone in the cellar.
Golec describes the event as a “show.”
“Now you may be asking, Gail, how can I watch a podcast?” her news release asks rhetorically.
“Good question. Here’s a good answer: I’ve put together a slideshow of historic pictures and maps to accompany the podcast. So the live version ends up playing more like a movie (and runs about 80 minutes) and you sit with other people to watch for that communal experience.”
Golec said she will end the presentation with a discussion period, and she will introduce some of the voice actors and musicians who lend their talents to the production.
‘It draws you into the story’
As an archaeologist, Golec has given scores of academic talks in the area for years. “I enjoy that, but I wanted to change that up a little,” she said.
Podcasts — audio programs that play on websites and are distributed as files through special software for people to listen to on their phones, tablets, or other devices — were the answer.
“I like the way it draws you into the story,” she said.
In the podcasts, Golec ties a person or family into the world they lived in. “The early turn of the century is fascinating. It’s right on the precipice before everything is about to change: migration, crop failure, wars,” she said.
“We have this idea that New England is always the same, it’s always been the same, and we should keep it that way,” said Golec. “But it’s not. And I like to bring that point home a lot, to remind people they’re looking at [New England] from a narrow perspective.”
To research stories for The Secret Life of Death, Golec has visited numerous Native American and Colonist sites, and libraries and archives, in the Bellows Falls and Walpole area. “I’ve probably read the history of every town in the region,” she said.
She had special praise for the New Hampshire state archives in Concord. “You can really get lost in there, having fun all day long with microfiche and old articles,” she said.
Golec often starts by simply going to a cemetery and finding a gravestone that appeals to her, whether it’s because it has an interesting design “or a funny name,” she said.
Then, she said, “I see where that takes me.”
Sometimes she finds a lack of information about a person or family, and she reaches a point of no return.
“I’m never sorry about the dead ends,” said Golec. “They always lead me somewhere,” she added, noting that those stories will likely become very short features in future episodes.
But, Golec said, her goal is egalitarian. “I like finding interesting things in places you didn’t think were interesting,” she said.
Likewise, Golec stressed that “something I hope to highlight is that [history] is not just mill owners and rich people. That’s a very small fraction of who was here and who worked here.”
Regular people, said Golec, have stories “that are way more interesting than the fancy people’s.”
“Crappy things happened to them. How did they deal with it? I’m looking at stuff about women, immigrants, and minorities,” she said, and noted, “it’s still relevant today.”
“You just don’t know what you’re going to find at the cemetery,” said Golec. “Horrible things, and beautiful things.”