I have always been fascinated by old cemeteries. There is something special about the serenity and peace of such places. To the observant visitor, they can also reveal much about the past, and perhaps, some insight into the lives of those who have preceded us.
My interest in cemeteries was re-awakened last year when I began working with other volunteers to restore, straighten, and preserve old headstones that had broken, fallen, or slipped lower into the soft earth at the Mill Creek Cemetery here in Johnsburg. That work, fun among friends of similar interest, re-ignited my interest in the stories these places hold.
If you also find yourself wandering old cemeteries, notice first the different types of stone used for headstones. The most ancient of these might be field boulders you may take for the natural state of the landscape. Then there are the headstones made of vertical tablets of slate or sandstone which were popular during the Colonial Period. You won’t find too many of those in the Adirondacks; most settlement here was of a much later period and slate tablets also quickly break down in the harsh climate of the Adirondacks. White marble headstones, popular in the mid to late 1800s and beautiful when new, will likely be covered with moss and lichens and pocked from years of spalling, a process where mineral salts are carried into the porous stone by moisture creating stress cracks within the stone. Acid rain also eats away at these stones; their inscriptions may be barely legible. Use of Granite headstones first became popular in the early 1900s as these heavy stones could easily be transported by rail to where they were needed. Given the hardness of granite, their inscriptions will likely last hundreds of years.
Next you might notice the various forms these headstones take. Some are strictly rectangular; others have slopes and curves. There are technical names for each of these. On some of the more orate headstones you will find designs and symbols. In the 17th and early 18th Centuries headstones might be decorated with skulls, skeletons and spent hourglasses reflecting that eras preoccupation with death and mortality. In time, symbols of mourning gave way to gentler presentation with floral arrangements, urns and weeping widows. Any decoration today is more likely to reflect the occupation or recreational interests of the deceased. In Bates Cemetery, just off Goodman Road in Johnsburg, the headstone of George and Grace Lackey Morehouse features a television set headstone.
But I would ask that you also notice the orientation of the headstones. Do the inscriptions all face west? Some say that the early headstones inscriptions were oriented to the west so that the body, could, on Judgement Day, sit up, face east, and ascend to heaven. Why east? That is where dawn happens and the religious of that time believed that at dawn will be the beginning of Judgment Day. Others claim the orientation was towards Jerusalem, also to the east here in the Adirondacks. In time, orientation in the cemeteries changed, perhaps due to typography. Some faced the cemetery entrance in the belief that the revived could walk through the cemetery entrance to Heaven. In some cases, there is no fence or entrance, and the headstones just face the road.
The grounds of older cemeteries are often uneven, and one must watch their footing. Tree roots are an obvious obstacle, but so too are older graves that have collapsed. It wasn’t until 1985 that most cemeteries required that caskets be sealed in concrete or reinforced polyethene liners.
One of my favorite cemeteries for exploring is the Wesleyan-Methodist Mill Creek Cemetery in Johnsburg, on Garnet Lake Rd, near Hudson Street. Many drive by it with hardly a glance; too few stop to explore its treasures. Among its headstones is that of Reverend Enos Putnam, an abolitionist preacher who decried slavery before the Civil War. Reverend Putnam died in March 1865, just months before the Civil War ended and about three years before the 14th amendment was passed freeing all the slaves, in the north as well as in the south. He is buried alongside his wife Sybil and their daughter Mary. The Putnam headstones are of marble, but their inscriptions are still quite legible.
The Reverend’s daughter, Mary died February 20, 1862, age 21 years, likely from the trauma of childbirth. Note the rose motif on Mary’s headstone. The rose of Paradise adornment, without thorns, symbolizes being without sin and often was used on the graves of young woman. The family was unable to keep Mary’s infant son Frank alive after Mary’s death. Frank died March 7th, age 1 month and 12 days. Mary’s husband, James Flansburgh, in rage over these deaths and feeling forsaken by God, soon thereafter enlisted with the 118th NYVI to fight in the Civil War. At his mother’ s request, his brother Henry signed on at the same time “to keep an eye on his brother” who, distraught over his personal losses, seemed to have a death wish. James’s recklessness on the battlefield was interpreted by his superiors as bravery; he was soon promoted from Private to Corporal and then to Sergeant. He was killed at the battle of Chaffin’s Farm on the outskirts of Richmond September 30, 1864, age 26 years and just months after his last promotion. Henry, James’ brother, had been wounded at the battle of Drury’s Bluff just 3 months before and was recuperating in a military hospital. Henry survived the war, but had lost the use of his right hand, a severe disability being right-handed. He found it difficult to do farm work on his return but was said to entertain the woman and children of the neighborhood when he learned to peel a potato solely with his left hand. Henry and his brother James are buried just a few feet apart, near Mary, James’ wife.
There is a quaint old cemetery on aptly named Christian Hill in North River. The first one said to have been buried there was three year old Christiana, killed in the midst of a storm when lighting struck a nearby tree. A limb broke free and fell, crushing her.
Family cemeteries can be particularly special places. They are often quite small, perhaps near the ruins of a stone foundation of a now long gone farmstead; forsaken in the woods, and slowly disappearing back into wilderness. One of the most picturesque family cemeteries I have ever found is the Wescott Family Cemetery in Bakers Mills, near the end of Bartman Road in Bakers Mills. This cemetery too features a Civil War veteran, Jarus Westcott. The cemetery is quite glorious in the fall, surrounded by fine field stone walls. A massive maple trees dominates the cemetery with its reds and yellows each autumn. There is only one headstone here, an obelisk, into which the names of the family have been cut. The family suffered great tragedy Christmas Day 1880 Alice J, born May 6, 1836, and Edna, born October 28, 1871, both died. Francis, Jarus’ wife, lived only until the following April and their daughter, Maud, died a month after, on May 27, 1881. This place seems to have become a pilgrimage for those who have lost young children; atop the obelisk someone has left a pair of baby shoes. Diphtheria swept those places in the 1880s and was likely the cause of theses tragic deaths, so close together. Jarus lived until 1923. The Jarus Wescott cemetery is on private land, but the public has graciously been granted access.
The old Reformed Dutch Cemetery on NYS Rt 28, just north of Wevertown, features an enclosure of large stones now leaning in various directions. There is a story that these large stones had been used as ship’s ballast, but I do not believe that is true. This cemetery is said to contain the remains of John Thurman (1729-1809). Thurman owned much of northern Warren County, northern Washington County and even some of southern Essex County. After the American Revolution he founded the settlement of “Elm Hill” in Johnbsurg. There is indeed a headstone with the inscription “In the memory of John Thurman”. But is he really buried there? This is not the oldest cemetery in the Township; that lies in the hamlet of Johnsburg, adjoining the southside of the Johnsburg Methodist Church on South Johnsburg Road. In that cemetery there is the Dunn and Roosevelt family plot. These were John Thurman’s relatives. That family plot includes a very small rectangular stone simply marked “J.T.”. Is this the true place of John Thurman’s burial?
At the Union Cemetery, on Main Street North Creek alongside the Baptist Church, you’ll find an obelisk listing the deaths of members of the Eldridge Family. Obelisks are a look back to Egyptian architecture and, according to Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister, represent a ray of sunlight. Being of marble, the inscriptions on the Eldridge obelisk are barely legible. If you look carefully, however, you’ll note that brothers, Jabey and Norman, were killed on the same day and on the same battlefield in Virginia during the Civil War. The Jabey and Norman notations on the Eldridge monument are likely commemorative. The same is true for most headstones for Civil War soldiers killed in battle. Their bodies, often unidentified, were most often buried in mass graves on the battlefield. After the war, many of these bodies were exhumed and placed in National Battlefield Cemeteries and marked with a white cross on which was carved “ UNK” for Unknown identity.
On the hilltop at Union Cemetery is the mausoleum of Melissa Persons, the mistress of lumberman Jones Ordway. Melissa bore several children with Jones while Jones’ legal wife and children were living in Glens Falls. It has been said that Melissa was very upset how everyone, including her parents and the folks in town, looked down upon her as an unwed mother “living in sin” with Jones. Her will stipulated that she was to have a mausoleum placed on the top of hill so she could look down on those same people forever.
Perhaps this Memorial Day or a day of your choosing, you might wish to check out your own local cemetery. What kind of stones are used? What is their design and orientation? What veterans have U.S. Flags by their headstones? Consider noting your favorite old cemeteries or interesting or historically significant headstones in the comment section below.
Old cemeteries can be fascinating places; places that can offer us entrance into a world we might not have otherwise imagined, if we only take the time to look.
Photo at top: Headstone of Civil War soldier Sergeant James. D. Flansburgh, killed at the battle at Chapin Farm, Virginia. All photos provided by Glenn Pearsall