© Long Island Advance, September 9, 2010, p. 5
Visit the Long Island Advance
[Everyone in Brookhaven and South Haven Hamlets should subscribe to the Long Island Advance. "Of course they want the Gazette! Everybody has the [Chipping Claghorne] Gazette. How else would they know what's going on around here?" —Agatha Christie in A Murder Is Announced.]
Tending graves of those who came before
History club wins lawsuit on town cemetery maintenance
By LINDA LEUZZI
That the area was a hotbed of the American Revolution is an understatement. Take Richard Corwin, for example, who is buried in the Corwin Cemetery between Chapel Avenue and Beaverbrook Drive in Brookhaven hamlet. Corwin, who fought in the battle of Yorktown and witnessed the surrender of Cornwallis, was so vigilant a guard that when Washington tried to pass him one night, he stopped him. His persistence made a mark and Corwin consequently became Washington's personal protector. Sam Carman, head of the family that the Carmans River is named after, settled nearby and established a mill and tavern that were the colonial center of the South Shore of Brookhaven Town. Daniel Webster fished in his millpond and was the best of friends with him. He and his family are buried on the east side of the Southaven County Dog Park.
Marty Van Lith, John Deitz and Richard Thomas, members of the Fire Place History Club, can relate these historical snapshots as easily as some recite their children's names and ages. But then again, they've been working on the area's historic cemeteries for nearly 20 years. Their quest, to have Brookhaven Town maintain the gravesites of 10 family burying grounds, was recently resolved by a decision of Justice Melvyn Tanenbaum of the New York State Supreme Court. After filing an Article 78 last July, Brookhaven Town is now required to resume care of nine historic family burying grounds, with a dozen or more graves, in the hamlets of Brookhaven and South Haven. The town is currently maintaining the Rose cemetery off Jareds Path.
Repeated requests to Brookhaven Town for comment from the Long Island Advance were not returned as of press time. But Councilwoman Connie Kepert (4th District) agreed with the lawsuit decision. "I think it's unfortunate it has to come to citizens suing the Town of Brookhaven to maintain the historic cemeteries," she said. "I met with Marty and Carol Bissonette, the deputy parks commissioner, then around 2008 and we were putting in place a whole schedule of taking care of the historic cemeteries and then it fell apart. I agree with the lawsuit. It's a state law and they should be taken care of. On the other hand I understand the parks department is stretched. "
"We've been mowing the lawns ourselves," said Van Lith of he and John Deitz. "John and I did it. Faith McCutcheon and I did it before." Sometimes, they cut back overgrowth with hedge clippers. Sometimes they hauled a lawnmower into and out of a truck. That became a bit arduous. Van Lith said they received support from Dave Overton, the town historian, from 1990 to 1998. "He gave us complete support and worked with us to get Revolutionary War veterans identified and replaced the markers' but admitted he had no control over the parks department to mow the lawn. He was adamant that these were town-owned cemeteries." The group really began leaning on the town in 2005.
"The town cared for all of them in 1964," Thomas pointed out. "They cared for 15 of them in our area. They contracted out for the very cemeteries we asked to maintain."
The Fire Place History Club has only wanted the grass cut a couple of times a year and brush cleared and also in some cases trees cleared that are propped up on headstones. "The Brookhaven Village Association has collected money for headstone restoration, some of which has been done, as it was in the Rose cemetery and we have a stone mason," Van Lith said. "But we can't restore the rest until the cemeteries are addressed."
In Nov. 2008, the town in a statement to the Long Island Advance said Brookhaven Town Parks was responsible for maintaining 114 cemeteries throughout the town in addition to 200 ball fields, more than 100 parks and other recreational facilities. The parks and fields were maintained on a priority basis because of their heavy use and most cemeteries, maintained by the department, were cleaned and mowed every few weeks.
Bellport attorney Regina Seltzer filed the pro bono lawsuit. Seltzer will admit, filing lawsuits isn't her favorite thing to do. "I wrote to the town explaining their legal obligation," she said. "It's much nicer for those with legal obligations to just do them." Seltzer joined the push because of her love of American history. "When you think about the colonists' time, to leave their country, and there was nothing here but fear of the unknown, it seems a shame that with the comfort and freedom we have now, that those who made it possible are forgotten," she said.
The decision, made on Aug. 20, was released and the town has been sent an official copy of the judge's ruling, Van Lith said.
"They don't have to do anything but get out there and cut the grass," Seltzer said .