Wednesday, August 5, 2009

East Hampton Has it Right

Tending to the Town’s Deceased

Inventory of cemeteries updates burial sites, 
Preserves valuable history

[This article from the East Hampton Star demonstrates a very different approach to the maintenance and preservation of historic cemeteries in a sister Long Island town.]

By Joanne Pilgrim

Durell Godfrey Photos
Members of the Edwards family who died in the 1860s were buried in this graveyard in the historic district of Springs.     
(04/30/2009)    The thin gravestones are sprinkled in small groups  throughout East Hampton Town, small family cemeteries or single graves dating back centuries now often surrounded by houses or left, unvisited and perhaps forgotten, in a stretch of woods.

    Bearing the names of settlers, 18th and 19th-century residents, and the occasional visitor who, perhaps, arrived by whaling ship, the graves, some with carvings and inscriptions describing bits of the deceased’s life or death, could be considered a graphic and valuable history.

    Under state municipal law, the town is responsible for taking care of burial grounds, regardless of who now owns the property they are on. But over the years, as new residents have taken over the old family homestead sites and expanded into outlying areas, there has been no master list to keep track of all the burial sites.

    A list used by the town Parks and Recreation Department, which does the upkeep, dates from 1959 and is problematic as many of the landmarks and local nicknames used to identify the location of gravesites have disappeared or fallen out of use.

    At the request of Town Councilman Brad Loewen, members of the town’s nature preserve committee have created a new list. Eileen Catalano, a Springs resident, inventoried the cemeteries throughout the town — with the exception of active cemeteries, Native American gravesites in Montauk, and cemeteries within East Hampton Village — by compiling information from several sources, from town records to the Long Island section of the East Hampton Library, and the colloquial knowledge of members of organizations such as the East Hampton Daughters of the American Revolution, the Springs Historical Society, the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society, and local historians including Hugh King.

    With Scott Bennett, a retired 15-year employee of East Hampton’s Parks Department, she visited the known sites to inventory their conditions and make maintenance recommendations. Mr. Bennett was invaluable to the effort to catalog all of the sites, according to Ms. Catalano.

    In trekking with her to find scattered graves, Mr. Bennett encountered the previously unknown resting place of a distant relative, Joseph C. Bennett. His headstone and footstone, dated 1859, are on private property off Old Stone Highway in Springs.

    “That was a new one for me,” said Mr. Bennett, a 12th-generation member of his family. “That would have been one of the great, great, great-uncles,” he said. Mr. Bennett has done a little looking into the Bennett line, a number of whom are buried in an all-Bennett cemetery in Northwest. He found the graves of an Oscar Bennett, at Three Mile Harbor, and of a Mary Bennett, whose husband fought in the French and Indian War. Her husband is not interred with her, though. The “old folklore,” Mr. Bennett said, is that he died while away, and the ship bringing his body home got becalmed at sea. “I guess he got to smell,” Mr. Bennett said, “so they buried him at sea.”

    One gravesite that Mr. Bennett remembers tending can no longer be found —that of “Ned, faithful manservant to Capt. Jeremiah Osborn,” according to the onetime headstone. It was originally on land off Morris Park Drive in East Hampton, where, Mr. Bennett said, “I remember seeing the gravesite and having our gang paint the fence once.”

    But when Ms. Catalano, with Mr. Bennett and others, went to look for it, it was unclear which house lot it might now be on, and was apparent on neither. According to one neighbor, Ms. Catalano wrote in the cemetery report, the original purchasers of the property that contained the grave “sold it because they could not build on [a] cemetery, but [the] second buyers built right over it.” In that case, according to the movies, faithful Ned might one day make himself known to the new residents of his resting place.

    Another mystery involves a site treated as a grave by the Parks Department employees, who discovered a stone on Six Pole Highway in Wainscott that had “old white cedar posts around it and a couple of rails.”

    “We found that one and I brought it to Ken Scott’s attention; he said he thought it was a grave; we boxed it in,” Mr. Bennett said. (Mr. Scott was formerly the Parks and Recreation Department head.)

The headstones on old-time gravesites often provide insight into the history of East Hampton Town.

    But Tim Miller, a local surveyor, has suggested that the stone is not a grave marker but one of the stones once used as road markers. The site is still included in the cemetery list, but with a notation raising the question of its provenance.

    “We’ve got 40-some cemeteries throughout the town, including the ones on Gardiner’s Island,” Mr. Bennett said. “In those days people didn’t have any money — they buried their own.”

    Since news of the draft list has gotten around, several people have contacted Ms. Catalano to make sure she knows about a solitary headstone, or group of graves, here or there around town. The report, which was adopted by the town board as an official document last week, will be a work in progress.

    The report recommends that the town either gain ownership of abandoned cemeteries or designate them as historical landmarks. Some gravesites are now cheek by jowl with pool sheds or other backyard structures. Other graves have been crowded or overtaken by trees and other shrubbery over the years.

    Richard Whalen, a member of the nature preserve committee who is an attorney and land-use planner, who also worked on the cemetery report, said he will recommend that, where possible, the town obtain a quit-claim deed from the owners of land on which there are graves.

    Other recommendations in the report are that, after confirming ownership of the parcels and their tax map numbers, the information be submitted to Suffolk County to be considered in future planning; that maintenance plans be developed for the cemeteries, and that town legislation be enacted protecting areas around the cemeteries from encroachment by development and making it illegal to remove objects from or desecrate cemeteries or single gravesites.

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