Town wants to take better care of its cemeteries

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It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

“The Dead,” by James Joyce

The Town of East Hampton wants to take better care of its dead, both new arrivals and those who have been resting for centuries in churchyards and public cemeteries. To that end, efforts are underway to find more space to create graveyards and to find out how many already exist in the town so that they can be better maintained.

Last year, town officials asked the Planning Department to take a look at available parcels that could be converted into cemeteries. Though the population of the town is only about 20,000, East Hampton has been in existence for 360 years and the numbers of dead have added up in Fort Hill Cemetery in Montauk, which is owned by the town, and those that are privately maintained.

Ironically, the recent economic downturn helps the town’s prospect with some parcels being more affordable.

An acre of land could accommodate between 800 and 1,000 graves. Presumably, the cost to the town of buying that acre (or more) would be earned back by selling the sites. The challenge is to find land where a cemetery would be allowed by zoning and the neighbors on this side of the ground.

A challenge the town already faces and is addressing is learning where cemeteries already are in East Hampton. There are the obvious ones such as the South End Burial Cemetery next to Town Pond, Cedar Lawn Cemetery, Fort Hill, and those owned and maintained by the area’s churches and synagogues. The inventory task was given to the Nature Preserve Committee, and its members say they have spent enough time prowling the woods to grow antlers.

“We’ve been looking for existing cemeteries both private and town owned,” explained Richard Whalen, a member of the committee. “With many of these cemeteries, over time the town either asserted ownership because they were essentially abandoned or a family or association deeded a graveyard to the town. Either way, those graveyards became the Town of East Hampton’s responsibility. Almost all of them are small and don’t have room for new grave sites. And there are those that are being inventoried for the first time.”

“It is sometimes hard to trace who is the owner of a cemetery,” said Richard Barons, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society. “A family graveyard, for example, may no longer have family members in the area after several generations and the property has gone through several owners.”

What about someone buying a piece of property that has a graveyard on it and the new owner wants to put the land to another use? One person’s affection for local history might be another’s grim reminder of mortality.

“The graveyard comes with the property,” Mr. Whalen stated. “It’s not like an old tree that you can have removed, that graveyard stays there. We do know of a property where an old grave was obliterated, though we haven’t done anything about it yet.”

He added: “In most cases these small cemeteries didn’t wind up on large parcels of open space, so today they are sort of cheek by jowl with houses, literally almost in the backyards. Up in Northwest Woods, there are small graveyards hundreds of years old next to houses of modern design. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, one that is very much East Hampton.”

Mr. Whalen said that the committee is “pretty far along” with its report to be submitted to the Town Board. “It is not going to give the town properties for a new cemetery,” he said, “but it will give the town a list that is as comprehensive as possible of what exists. Then it is up to the Town Board to decide what comes next.”

East Hampton’s cemeteries certainly offer glimpses of the town’s social and cultural history. Initially, those who died were buried discreetly, in the equivalent of backyards or in a clearing in the woods. The headstones were usually modest memorials. More than a few of the cemeteries being inventoried by the Nature Preserve Committee are family plots with graves of a dozen or fewer. In 1684, the colonial legislature passed a law forbidding the practice, a big reason being that such burials on private land made it difficult to verify deaths.

There was, over time, a shift to burying the dead in established graveyards more in the public eye. A church built on the western end of Town Pond offered room for graves. As more churches were built, it became common for them to have cemeteries. The headstones became more complicated and symbolic memorials.

“Epitaphs were used as ways to guide people’s thinking and how they lived, sort of ‘If you’re really good, look what we’ll write about you,’” said Hugh King, a town historian who for years has led tours of the South End Cemetery. “Often, epitaphs were meant to be instructive about keys to leading a good life or a warning that dire consequences await those who don’t.”

Among those buried in the South End cemetery is Lion Gardiner, whose name is synonymous with the founding of the town and whose descendants still own Gardiner’s Island. Also buried there are the ministers Thomas James, Nathaniel Huntting, and Samuel Buell, longtime heads of their respective churches in the 1600s and 1700s. And there is the father of Julia Gardiner Tyler, who was killed in a boiler explosion aboard the USS Princeton, which almost took the lives of his daughter and her husband, President John Tyler, in 1844.

The Fort Hill Cemetery consists of 30 acres on a bluff that overlooks Fort Pond and the ocean. Originally, it was a Montaukett fortification where the tribe was defeated in battle by the Narragansett Indians in 1654. It opened as a cemetery in 1991 and is already nearing capacity. (The two largest cemeteries on Long Island are Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale and Calverton National Cemetery, both in excess of 1,000 acres.)

The Green River Cemetery in Springs is sort of the Page Six of graveyards because of the many cultural icons buried there. Among those who may be painting and writing in the afterlife there are Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Jimmy Ernst, Henry Geldzahler, Frank O’Hara, Jean Stafford and A.J. Liebling, Harold Rosenberg, Steven Ross, Alfonso Ossorio, and Alan Pakula. There is no river nearby, green or otherwise.

One result of town officials having the inventory report from the Nature Preserve Committee is they can make a better effort to upgrade and maintain cemeteries. The estimate is that there is a total of more than 60 graveyards in the town, though only 47 are listed by the Recreation and Parks Department, which keeps up with the maintenance. At times, this can be frustrating because one concern that was expressed by the Town Board at a meeting last March is that some residents view graveyards as dog runs.

There are reasons beyond aesthetics why cemeteries in the town should be kept up. “A cemetery is an historic place,” Mr. King said. “It’s like going to Home Sweet Home or the Clinton Academy. It’s the same way a community takes care of its historic buildings and windmills and even open spaces. Yet a dilemma for the town is we need more cemetery space but that could mean more money the town has to spend on maintenance and the town is looking to cut expenses, not add new ones.”

Perhaps it can be said that how a community takes care of its dead reveals something about the soul of its people.

“There’s nothing more despicable and melancholy than coming into a community and seeing broken fences and vines crawling all over headstones,” Mr. Barons stated. “The problem the rest of us know is that many of these cemeteries are privately owned, or were at one time, and then sort of fell by the wayside. What is done about that implies that the community doesn’t care about its history at all. This is particularly so in East Hampton, as with many other communities, where a cemetery is prominently displayed front and center as you enter the village.”

He pointed to the proactive stance that the Town of Southampton took several years ago. It brought in a team of specialists from the University of Pennsylvania to inventory cemeteries, and that process included identifying ownership. That effort sparked a similar one in the Town of Southold. The specialists also taught town employees and others the best ways to get the lichen off and otherwise maintain the graveyards.

“A very good example of what results is the cemetery in Sagaponack on Montauk Highway near the border with Wainscott,” Mr. Barons said. “It looked so sad for so long, such an abandoned feel to it. They put up the new fence up and cleaned the place up. It took about a year but now it is so much more presentable, a site the community can be proud of.”

He added: “Another way to consider these places other than cemeteries or graveyards is as parks of remembrance.”

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