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Remembering Ancestors:Evolution of American Cemeteries

We remember loved ones. We remember those about whom we care and who are now departed. We remember our ancestors for one, two, and maybe three generations if we are lucky enough to have known them. Beyond that memory becomes difficult, figures become blurred, and people are forgotten.

We do not simply dispose of the body when death occurs, we perform a ritual. Whether or not the ritual aids the one who has died is beyond the scope of this post; the ritual certainly is intended to aid the living to continue their journey in this life.

The standard way in which the body of the departed is treated is burial. Millennia ago in the neolithic (New Stone) and chalcolithic (Copper) ages, the bodies might be buried in the home of the living. Today, archaeologists find these bodies under the floors of ancient homes. Obviously there is limit as to how many generations can be buried within a single home.

In colonial times, the farm itself served as the burial ground. These family graves may be found in many places in many communities throughout the state but they have not always fared well. For example, in the village of Port Chester in 2004 Gregory Fragiacomo, seeking to fulfill his community requirement to obtain the rank of Eagle Scout, led the effort to clean up a cemetery now in the midst of suburban homes…and had to overcome a legal challenge to do so. The tombstones, which often are still legible, are primarily from the Brown family of the Town of Rye in the 18th century.

Back in 1998, the burial site of 15 members of the Merritt family who arrived in the 1670s was located near the Byram River where a Costco was to be built. The deceased were buried between 1735 and 1851. Archaeological excavations prior to the construction revealed no trace of the burials. Analysis of old maps and histories clearly document the presence of the graves. Who moved them and why remains a mystery. But there is no truth to the rumor that the spirits of the Merritts haunts the village and town or the Merritt Parkway which is the continuation of the Hutchinson River Parkway in Connecticut.

In New Rochelle, where I grew up, there was a slight twist to the pattern of farmland burials. There was a Huguenot farm which eventually was acquired by Quakers. Even though slavery had been abolished in New York, it remained difficult for free blacks to find a place to be buried. A Quaker family then made their farm available to blacks in the surrounding area to be buried there. The cemetery appears on maps of New Rochelle as late as 1978, but with a caveat. A boundary line now divides it. One side is now foul territory on the third base side of the playing fields of a parochial school with nary a trace of the cemetery remaining. The other side is now part of the property of a seminary. It is overgrown with trees and shrubs, but in the winter when the vegetation is bare it is possible to see some headstones, along with foul balls hit over the fence. Back in 1998, the story of the cemetery even made the front page of the local paper including a picture of me. The hope was not only to clear the area, but to also include its history in the local school curriculum. That hope was not fulfilled.

Every village, town, and city has stories to tell of where the people of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were buried. These burial sites may be scattered here and there throughout the community often unknown and frequently forgotten; municipalities may have acquired abandoned property that they don’t know what to do with. And some may have disappeared.

The best preserved burial sites from that era tend to be in churches. Recently I wrote about the White Plains Presbyterian Church celebrating its 300th anniversary. Its 18th-century graves include connections to the American Revolution and America’s first spy ring. Other posts in New York History have described excavations now going on in Mount Kisco at church burial grounds. On July 4, Jim Kaplan leads tours to Trinity Church graveyard in lower Manhattan to lay wreathes on Revolutionary figures. Nearby St. Paul’s Church combines ancient graves and being a place of refuge on 9/11.

These churches with burials from the colonial era tend to be Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed although clearly there are other denominations involved as well. The newer Methodist and Quaker religions date later as do most Catholic cemeteries. From these churches with their graveyards, one can tell the story of a community as remains true today.

But then something happened which rendered church burials inadequate: the population grew and became middle class. Plus not everyone belonged to a church or had a farm. The result was the creation of something brand new in America: cemeteries, that is, burial places not attached to church. These cemeteries weren’t just separate plots of land, they were rural cemeteries and they represented a change in American history. In 1847, the New York State Legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act to authorize burial in these new organizations.

1024px-Green-Wood_Cemetery_by_David_ShankboneRural cemeteries were more than a place where the burgeoning population could be buried. They were contoured landscapes where the living could have a spiritually renewed experience in the presence of the headstone of the departed. Brooks would babble, springs would flow, and gentle waves of the land would serenely envelope the living. As people sought more in life for their homes, so they sought more for their eternal resting place. The sublime experience wasn’t limited to Hudson River Art painters but was available to the ordinary family who could now spend a Sunday amidst a tranquil setting brought to them by the kind of people who would later design Central Park.

The Rural Cemetery movement swept through New York with great speed. From Brooklyn to Troy and westward, these islands of serenity were places people wanted to visit while alive and be buried in when dead. For example, a few blocks north of the White Plains Presbyterian Church is the White Plains Rural Cemetery. Adjacent to the Dutch Reformed Church Burial Ground in Sleepy Hollow is the Sleepy Hollow (Rural) Cemetery where Washington Irving is buried. The Fishkill Rural Cemetery is also only a few blocks from Trinity Church. In Poughkeepsie and Troy, the rural cemeteries hug the Hudson providing often spectacular views even before bridges and the Capital Plaza were built. At the Albany Rural Cemetery, Peter Hess can tell a story about every grave the same way Hugh MacDougall can about every house in Cooperstown.

These cemeteries naturally are terrific locations for Halloween. The Sleepy Hollow tour as one would expect sells out quickly; APHNYS president Gerry Smith participates in the tour in Binghamton although he has not yet made it a requirement for all municipal historians to do so!

On several occasions, IHARE has had programs bringing teachers to rural cemeteries throughout the Hudson Valley including many of the ones mentioned in this post. In Albany, Poughkeepsie, and Schenectady, we arranged for trolleys/buses to drive us around while in Troy we drove. In Sleepy Hollow we walked and didn’t see most of the grounds. As reported in a previous post, one professor uses cemeteries to teach social history. One can learn a lot by seeing dead people…or at least where they are buried.

Once there was an association of some kind for these cemeteries. I don’t know how active it is but clearly they are part of the history of America from the 1830s on. There is a New York State Association of Cemeteries based in Albany which at some point should be invited to participate in the discussions on the New York History Commission. A search for rural cemetery on the Path Through History website calls up U.S. Presidents, because one is buried at the Albany Rural Cemetery, and Natural History, for reasons I can’t discern. It would appear that according to ILoveNY the rural cemetery movement has disappeared from tourism as it has from the curriculum.

Above: Hebron Cemetery in Washington County (photo by John Warren); below, Green-Wood Rural Cemetery in Brooklyn (courtesy Wikimedia user David Shankbone.


21 thoughts on “Remembering Ancestors:Evolution of American Cemeteries

  1. At the risk of being guilty of self-promotion, I would like to draw your attention to an effort to tell local history through visits to cemeteries: LOST VILLAGES does this for Delaware County through historic driving tours. At the time of it’s publication in 2002, at least one elementary-school teacher told me she planned to use it with her 4th-graders. The paperback is still available from the Delaware County Historical Association (

    1. That’s great. Would it possible to find out if a teacher did use it and write a post for New York History about the effort? In a previous post about the recent New England History Association conference, I reported on how a college professor used the local cemetery to teach social history of the 19th century.
      Thanks for sharing.


      1. I have been doing a cemetery program for our local school district for since 2001. It focuses on the cemetery as a source for local history, particularly the history of average people. In its current incarnation I provide one version for second grade with very basic information about cemeteries. I have a more advanced program I have developed for grade five, which is aligned to the Common Core. I am still working to refine the associated documentation and encourage teachers to use it, but it has gotten positive evaluations so far. You can find a description of the program and the teacher materials on our website:

  2. Beautiful photo of “Hebron” cemetery. It reminded me of another similarly named cemetery, Mt. Hebron, in Winchester, Va, the final resting place of Revolutionary War hero, General Daniel Morgan.
    The use of the name “Hebron” may well go back to the fact that the first known recorded “deed” for burial property is traced back to the Patriarch Abraham, the founder of what eventually became the “big three” religions of civilization, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. He purchased property in Hebron (now part of the West Bank, and the scene of the recent sad murder of three young boys hitchhiking there) as his final resting place, along with his wife and other relatives. A shrine and still a shared place of prayer (albeit on on different days and different holidays) for both Muslims and Jews thru today

  3. Here in the North Country, the Clinton County Historical Association/Museum sponsors town/cemetery tours periodically through the year. The town historian is typically the host & tour guide, lunch is provided, and attendance and interest has been good. Our first Schuyler Falls town/cemetery tour was this Spring, and was a positive and sharing experience for all of us. I look forward to hosting other such tours here in my town. My understanding is that there are several types of cemeteries – not-for-profit incorporated cemeteries as regulated under the NYS Cemetery Division and Board, and then religious, private, family, municipal, and national/state cemeteries.
    Peter – thanks for the background and encouragement in your article.

    1. A couple of years ago, my husband and I had the great experience of joining one of the excellent Clinton County tours that took place in churches and cemeteries around Ellenburg. I had visited several times a monument with names of several members of my family in the Ellenburg Corners Cemetery. The most ‘recent’ was Russell B. (d. 1901). The stone itself, in fact, had been created by my great grandfather, Tilson Day Fuller, a stonemason. As part of the tour we also visited the nearby Hutchins Cemetery, and I discovered two very old stones marking burial sites for Isaac (d. 1856) and his son Wesley Fuller. Both of their names and death dates are also on the large monument in the Ellenburg Corners Cemetery, but now I know where they are actually buried!! Not really critical but very interesting non-the-less.

  4. Some eminent historian or anthropologist said, “you can learn a great deal about a people or society by observing how they care for their cemeteries”. Here in Wayne County we have identified well over 200 cemeteries. What we are finding is more and more private cemetery corporations are no longer selling plots and now are running out of money to do maintenance (mowing & trimming). NYS Law requires the local town to assume control and supply a minimum of maintenance (like two mowings per year). At least in our neck of the woods, it falls to the local municipal historian to provide a degree of oversight to insure that each town takes their responsibility seriously. Some are very responsible while others are not. About half of the cemeteries here are the family and farm plot type. Some are cared for by municipalities but most fall to volunteer groups. These need to be watched carefully. Farmers are known to pull the stones and pile them in the hedge rows and then proceed to plow and plant the field.

    Here in Wayne Co. more than half our towns have some form of cemetery tours being given on a regular basis. These are either lead by the local municipal historian or the historical society. Every veteran has a flag by their grave in summer and a wreath in winter. This requires 1000s of flags and wreaths. The local historian(s) play a major role in this effort. They may not do the actual flag or wreath laying but they do provide the research and verified lists outlining who is eligible. There are helpful people in Albany who are able to advise anyone on proper protocol, maintenance and cemetery law.
    Very good topic.

    1. Hello Peter,
      Your post stated,, “Some eminent historian or anthropologist said, “you can learn a great deal about a people or society by observing how they care for their cemeteries” was actually a statement made by Benjamin Franklin. It was, “Show me your cemeteries, and I will show you what kind of people you have.” The wording could be a bit different. No matter how it is stated, it is a powerful statement.

      Our American Legion have volunteers put flags on the grave of every veteran in each cemetery on Memorial Day. It’s wonderful.

  5. Peter,
    The Historical Society of Rockland County is in the 2nd year of a 4-year series of visiting historic cemeteries on a Saturday in September for about 4 hours followed by a lunch at a nearby restaurant. Last year we toured Orangetown. This year, on 9/20/14 we will be touring Ramapo, Clarkstown in 2015 and North Rockland in 2016. These tours have been well-received and attended. These are bus tours where a representative at each cemetery boards the bus and shares the historical significance and other interesting facts (and famous names in some cases). At some stops we will disembark but the participants are given information and maps so that they may return to any of the cemeteries on their own time and explore on their own.

  6. Here our the Nassau and Suffolk Cemetaries we have gathered:


    There were so many Pratts in Glen Cove, they designed a cemetery for themselves in one corner of their property. Also known as Pratt Cemetery, behind these gates and up a winding driveway stands a pink granite romanesque mausoleum designed by William Tubby. There is a crypt and a tower connected by a “bridge of sighs”. The family patriarch, Charles Pratt, is interred in a sarcophagus here, along with 7 of his 8 children, and many of his grandchildren
    MANHASSETT Among those buried in the cemetery at Lakeville AME Zion Church in Manhasset are several of the church’s original founders and veterans from the Civil War and the Spanish-American War as seen in this Jan. 12, 2011 photo. Built in 1833, the church, its cemetery and several houses to the north are all that is left of the historic free black village of Success.
    LATTINGTOWN The Underhill Burying Ground The Underhill Burying Ground (UBG.) is located on land granted to Capt. John Underhill by the Indians in 1667, in the area then called Matinecock and now within the Village of Lattingtown, in the Town of Oyster Bay, NY, on Long Island. The cemetery has been in continuous use since the burial in 1672 of Capt. John Underhill, whose grave is marked by the imposing monument (above) erected by the Underhill Society and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt. Eleven generations of his descendants now rest there.

    First formally organized in 1843, the Burying Ground was incorporated in 1909 and is administered by its own board of officers and trustees. It is beautifully maintained, using income from a trust established by Myron C. Taylor. Burial rights may be purchased by descendants of Capt. John Underhill, by application to the UBG. Secretary.

    PORT WASHINGTON Monfort Cemetery is located 250 feet (76 m) east of the intersection of Port Washington Boulevard (NY 101) and Main Street in Port Washington, New York, United States. It contains 118 graves of some of the earliest Dutch settlers of Cow Neck (as today’s Port Washington was then known) and their descendants, buried from 1737 to 1892. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
    JERICHO FRIENDS The Jericho Friends Meeting House was erected in 1788, and stands off of old Jericho Turnpike. The notable Quaker Elias Hicks lived nearby and is buried in the cemetery here along with many other notable Quaker names, like Underhill, Willis, Willets, Seaman and of course, Hicks.

    YOUNGS CEMETARY Just slightly down the road from Sagamore Hill is Youngs Cemetery, where Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States of America is interred. It only makes sense that Teddy would want to be buried as close to his house as possible, and he sits up on a hill with a nice view of Cove Neck (information below is from the Town website which has more detailed data)

    On 35th Street, just north of sunrise Highway are two cemeteries which are declared as Town of Babylon Historical sites. They are both burial grounds of Native American families and Civil War Veterans.
    GREEN BUNN On the east side of the road is the Green-Bunn Burial ground. The site contains a general memorial to those buried there. There is only one fading headstone that remains.
    BREWSTER On the west side of the street is the Brewster burial ground. In addition to the general memorial to those buried there, there are three prominent markers. They are for “Charlie Carr – Civil Wor(sp) Vet,” “Florance H. Brewster,” and “Sidney Brewster.”

    AMITYVILLE: Most likely the cemetery at Bayview and Albany Avenue (Amityville) is the oldest black cemetery on Long Island. It is a small 50×150 foot plot. As per the newspaper Newsday, October 24, 1979, page 21, the cemetery was to be restored at that time. This cemetery was built because colored people were not allowed to be buried in Amityville Cemetery until around the turn of the century.

    SOUTH END CEMETERY – Adjacent to the Town Pond, this cemetery once formed the church yard for East Hampton’s first meeting house which stood on the north side. The oldest burying ground in the Town of East Hampton, it contains tombstones dating back to the 17th century.

    The Old Burial Hill Cemetery is off Main Street in Huntington, behind the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial building. It is the oldest public cemetery in Huntington and was likely established soon after the town’s founding in 1653, according to “Portrait of a Small Town II,” a book on the history of Huntington. Fort Golgotha was built by the British during the Revolutionary War on the property

    COLD SPRING HARBOR The memorial cemetery of St. John’s Church of Cold Spring Harbor located off of Northern Blvd. in Laurel Hollow. Many notable Old Long Island residents are interred here but the cemetery itself has very few graves. Those who are buried here are spread out over quite a large parcel of property and are surrounded by hundreds of mature rhododendrons.

    COMMACK @ Home Depot Small family cemetery.

  7. Schenectady has church graveyards at both St. George’s (Episcopal) Church and the First Presbyterian Church in its historic Stockade District. Just about a mile away one finds Vale Cemetery (, Schenectady’s rural cemetery. Vale is still in operation and historical tours are frequently given.

    I recall that Garry Wills discusses the history of the rural cemetery movement in “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” where he attributes it to America’s fascination and rediscovery of all things Greek as Americans became aware of the Greek war of independence during the 1820’s. My recollection of Wills’ argument is as follows: The ancient Greek practice of interring their dead in beautiful park-like settings lent itself to the spiritual beliefs that were widespread in America at that time. The beautiful landscape and views of a rural cemetery were believed to facilitate the visitor’s deep spiritual contemplation. This state of consciousness, then termed “melancholia”, was much desired for it was believed that a person in that state might experience a “parting of the veil” that separated the world of the living from the afterworld, and could allow the visitor to commune in some sense with the departed loved one. Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg can be seen address the design of the cemetery at Gettysburg as a place of such spiritual contemplation.

    Although today we equate the word “melancholy” with “sad”, it had quite a different meaning long ago. Recall that Hamlet is called “the melancholy Dane”, and while modern readers may think that this indicates he was depressed or moody, recall that for Hamlet the veil did part and he was visited several times by the ghost of his dead father, who revealed to him the name of his murderer.

    Rural cemeteries can be rich historical resources. And many a cemetery that today sits within a city, was originally intended as a rural cemetery.

  8. I’m historian for our Village of McGraw, Cortland County and have sponsored cemetery tours in our village
    and also in the town of Solon and Marathon village. Within our small village, we have the “Old Baptist Cemetery”, not owned by the Baptist Church but named for its location behind the church. Burials date from the early 1800s to ca. 1845. It is thought that people buried family members on their farms until a new cemetery, McGrawville Rural Cemetery, opened in 1860 and is still used for burials. In the early 1900s, 5 Revolutionary Soldiers were moved from the Old Baptist Cemetery to the “new” cemetery. One soldier was left behind, reason unknown. Our 3rd cemetery is the “Black Cemetery” which was used for burials of black students who died from a small pox epidemic in 1850, while they were studying in our New York Central College (1849-1860).

    I hope to do another cemetery tour this fall and enjoy sharing the history of those buried there.

    We were on our way home from RI this past weekend, crossed the Hudson at Newburgh and remembered
    the time we joined your teachers’ group for the Hudson River Art program. Can’t believe it was that long ago.
    What fun that was and also an education on the history of that area. You made it so interesting.

    I think you did a program on the Palatine Germans in the Mohawk Valley one time and one that we would have really liked to attend but had some kind of conflict. Carl’s Palatine German ancestor came to the Town of Florida in the mid 1740s and fought at the Battle of Oriskany. He returned to his farm after the war and is buried nearby.
    It would have been interesting to learn more about the PGs who settled along the Mohawk River.

    Keep up the good work on reminding us of the wonderful heritages we have.

  9. Sorry for my belated comment. I consider the cemetery at Trinity churchyard in Lower Manhattan which you briefly mention in your blog to be one of the most historic places in the United States. Among the people buried there are Alexander Hamilton, General Horatio Gates (whose previously unmarked grave was recently marked by the New York State DAR), Marinus Willett, Robert Fulton and war of 1812 hero James Lawrence, and large monument to the New York prison ship martyrs.. A visit to the Churchyard at the foot of Wall Street is a veritable course in early American history.

    This year and last in addition to the July 4 wreath laying which you mention, we are going to be holding a ceremony around mid October in honor of the American victories at Saratoga and Yorktown, in which we will lay wreaths on the grave of Alexander Hamilton )hero of Yorktown,
    plaque to General Gates (winning commander at Saratoga) and Marinus Willett, (hero of Fort Stanwix). For more than 100 years Boston has celebrated the Battle of Bunker Hill > We feel it is high time New York City celebrated the much more important battles of Saratoga and Yorktown at the site where the winning generals are buried. Cemeteries like Trinity Churchyard are our history.
    Thank you Peter for pointing out their importance.

  10. Trinity Episcopal Church is not the only church blocks away from Fishkill Rural Cemetery. Fishkill Reformed is actually closer, and older. As church historian, I typically do cemetery tours twice a year, corresponding to our church fairs. My daughter and I also do impromptu tours whenever we see someone walking in the churchyard. Information about all burials, including individual pictures of each stone, is available on the church website at This was done by Eagle Scout Bill Wolf in 2000. I hope to add the cemetery of extinct Rombout Presbyterian Church, just down the road in Brinckerhoff, as soon as I can find a Boy or Girl Scout interested in doing the project.

    Also just down the highway is the FIshkill Supply Depot, which includes the unmarked and almost forgotten graves of hundreds of Revolutionary soldiers. The land is privately owned and slated for development. The Friends of the Supply Depot are trying to buy the land to prevent this. In the meantime, they have discovered then names of 85 soldiers known to have been buried there.

    I wish you had added a caveat about not doing any rubbing of old stones. The sandstone ones are delaminating, and the old marble ones are “sugaring” Any physical contact with either can do irreparable harm. This includes shaving cream, chalk, etc. The best way to try and read an old stone is to use a big, cheap door mirror to reflect light .

    1. I think I meant the Reformed Church. I have been here with teachers several times. During our visits besides the tour of the church and the grounds we have heard an organ recital and climbed up the steeple on the stairway behind the organ. The Fishkill Supply Depot has been mentioned in a few posts and I did go on a tour last September. I see the program is being repeated this September. The meeting scheduled for November should Fishkill create a Fishkill Path through History where people can spend a day there.

      Thanks for writing.


  11. Some of my lineal ancestors are buried in a family cemetery that is now a part of New York state forestland owned by the State. We were wondering how to find out whether we can make repairs to the tombstones that are falling over? Do you know whom we should contact? Some of the tombstones are over 200 years old, and my g-g-g-g-g-g-grandfather was a Revolutionary War veteran.

    Also, do you know if it is still possible to be buried in old cemeteries that still have space available? My g-g-g-g-grandparents are buried in a rural cemetery that is located in and maintained by the Town of DeRuyter, NY. After growing up in cities far away from there, my wife and I have settled near that town. Thank you.

  12. Have you written any articles on the White Plains Rural Cemetery, in Westchester County N.Y.? My Hatfield relatives are there, and last year I spent the entire week end there walking around this beautiful cemetery.

    1. Although I drive by it once a month, I have not written about it. My post was more general…and written several years ago!
      Thanks for writing.


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