Hartford Courant | December 21, 2008 | Download PDF
Cemeteries are a seemingly unchanging element of our landscape. The dead rest for eternity, and the barest facts of their lives are carved in enduring stone. With orderly rows of headstones set on manicured lawns, they are tranquil islands of stability in a world of transformation and movement.
Orphaned by time and circumstance, many are small family plots established when the state’s landscape was quilted with farms. Some are community cemeteries in places long ago abandoned by the living. Still others are plainly visible in areas with modern homes and businesses, a testament to local budget priorities.
Cemeteries are biographies of our state planted on the countryside. Their location, monuments, and landscaping illustrate technology, social trends, wealth, ethnicity, and settlement patterns in different eras. Though evocative of the past, their condition says more about the present. While willfully damaging a cemetery is a felony, letting them slowly go to ruin remains unpunishable.
Accessible only over rough dirt roads in the deep woods of Winchester, Danbury Quarter Cemetery is the last visible remnant of a nineteenth-century community that was once home to as many as 200 families. Although the grass is occasionally cut, many of the finely carved tombstones surrounded by a stone wall have been damaged by hooligans and the ravages of time. Nearby litter illustrates the popularity of the site for drinking parties. Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers are among those buried here, including Charles Gilbert, who died in 1862 of wounds received at the Battle of James Island.
A very different cemetery can be found in a tangle of laurel on a slope of hemlock and mixed hardwoods overlooking the Farmington River in neighboring Barkhamsted. The so-called Lighthouse community’s graveyard is marked only by chunks of rough fieldstone, as might be expected for a poor group of mixed-race outcasts in the 1800s. The burial ground is so obscure that most people on the adjacent hiking trail pass by unaware of it.
No better illustration of the notion that where you stand in life determines how you lie in death can be seen than in Moosup, where well-groomed Union Cemetery rises up a hillside with handsome and substantial monuments. In stark contrast, on the other side of the street is a linear patch of headstones lying in thick trees and hidden behind a guardrail. Many of the markers have been damaged and most are just chunks of native rock. State Archeologist Nicholas Bellantoni estimates that about forty African Americans, buried over a century ago, lie here beneath the leaf litter and brush. Disenfranchised in life, these anonymous individuals remain so in death.
The ignominy of burial in an overgrown and vandalized cemetery extends even to members of well-known families. Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic Little Women, has family buried in two neglected cemeteries along the Tunxis Trail in Wolcott. Her father, Bronson, was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry D. Thoreau and the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Odell Shepherd, who served as Connecticut’s Lieutenant Governor. Both graveyards contain shattered, eroded, tilted, and bramble-choked markers. The headstone of Joseph Alcott in Northeast Cemetery has a quarter-sized bullet hole through it. One family was so frustrated with the condition of this graveyard that they had several of their ancestors exhumed and moved elsewhere.
Despite being unkempt, many of these plots retain an emotional resonance which highlights the poignancy of their poor condition. Shrouded in scrubby woods above the Quinnebaug River in Plainfield is a tiny cemetery with about a dozen burials, most of which are indicated with fieldstones. Greenish with age, a marble stone marks the grave of David Kinne who died in 1808 at age 72. Beside him is Nathaniel Kinne whose flaking, lichen-encrusted slate slab tells of his death crossing the river in April 1807 during his thirty-first year. Broken and lying horizontal on the ground next to it is the stone of Nathaniel, son of Nathaniel, who died in 1804. While standing before these silent stones as the wind sighs in the trees and birds chirp, the grief of the elder Kinne witnessing the death of succeeding generations is almost palpable.
Neglected cemeteries vary considerably in size, location, and condition. The Weeks family plot, with a few stones overwhelmed by trees deep in Eastford’s Natchaug State Forest, is fairly remote. On the other hand, Griswold’s Hopeville Cemetery lies on a well-traveled road not far from an interstate highway. But its monuments, ranging from eighteenth-century sandstone slices with death angels to simple concrete markers from the 1950s, are often obscured by three-foot-high desiccated grasses. We say nice words over the dead, but the future doesn’t always remember. We give lip service to perpetual care, but eternity is a long time.
Some communities have programs that encourage scout groups, garden clubs, civic organizations, and families armed with clippers, rakes, lawnmowers, and other tools to help maintain neglected graveyards. More of this enthusiasm and energy needs to be recruited. Maintaining cemeteries is an act of devotion that doesn’t just honor the dead; it teaches the living about the origin of the opportunities we enjoy today. Without proper care, cemeteries, like people, can die prematurely.