The following is the keynote speech I delivered on September 19, 2015 for the 2nd Annual Cemetery Seminar, sponsored by the Hunterdon Co. Historical Society and others. It is somewhat modified to make it more readable, less like a speech.
I’d like to tell you a personal story, and then a little about what we can learn from these very special places. But first—
What Are Family Burying Grounds?
This may seem obvious, but it’s worth considering. A Family Burying Ground is usually found on private property. It is a resting place for members of a particular family. Unlike a public cemetery, it is not incorporated, and no new burials are taking place there. Most are quite small, although some can hold as many as 150 graves or more. The important thing to remember is that it is completely dependent on the good will of its owners, and after a century or so, those owners no longer have any family connection with the people who are buried there.
We know these graveyards are vulnerable. So it’s a good idea to understand just why they are important and worth saving.
A Personal Story
When I moved to Delaware Township with my family in 1976, I had no idea I had an ancestor here. Eventually I discovered that I did. He was Samuel Green, one of the earliest settlers in Amwell Twp. He married his third wife, Hannah Wright, around 1738, before moving north to Warren County.
Hannah’s father was John Wright. When he wrote his will he stated that he lived in Amwell Township. But exactly where he lived, I could not tell.
A few years ago, I visited a private family burying ground at Prallsville, known as the Rittenhouse Cemetery. The oldest stone there was totally mysterious, being a series of initials and the date 1732.1 That’s a pretty early date for that vicinity, and I figured it must have belonged to one of the Howell families, who were early settlers in that area.
Just recently I did a house history for a property on Route 523 a little north of Prallsville. It turned out to be the home of John Wright, who moved there in 1727. And that will I mentioned was written and recorded in 1732.
Then it clicked. The initials on that mysterious gravestone were “I W”, the “I” being the old way of writing “J”. So, I had found not only John Wright’s home, but also his burial place.
What a stunning realization that was! Although I grew up in Michigan, I now have a very personal connection to Prallsville. And I’ve had the thrill of discovery, which can happen in any type of old cemetery, but somehow—in the case of family burying grounds—it is a special experience, since those cemeteries are so much harder to find, and seem far more personal.
What Family Burying Grounds Mean to the Community
Consider this question: Why is it that some of us are deeply interested in cemeteries where none of our ancestors are buried? The reason is that we care about the place where we live and the history of the people who came before us, whoever they were. Cemeteries are landmarks for that history.
It is important for us to understand who preceded us. Learning about them and how they lived where we now live gives us an appreciation for the past and for our own place in the history of our towns and counties and states, and even the country as a whole.
For instance, studying cemeteries can teach us about the great American migrations.
There are many Hunterdon residents who emigrated to the West and Far West in the 18th and 19th centuries, starting new towns and establishing their families in new places. Some of those emigrants from Hunterdon were returned to the county after they died, to be buried in the cemetery where their parents or a first spouse were buried.
For people who descend from those Hunterdon emigrants, retracing the steps of that migration, and finding the place where those early ancestors were born and then buried, is especially meaningful.
These graveyards can also teach us about our country’s history. Many people who participated in the Revolution and the Civil War can be found in family burying grounds. Slave burials are also there, and victims of cholera in the 1830s. These moments in our country’s history are made real by the people who lived through them, and then came to rest here in Hunterdon.
What Burial Ground Locations Can Teach Us
It is surprising how many family burial grounds are found very close to the original houses. The Nixon-Craven Cemetery is a good example. It is located on Route 579 south of Quakertown, right next to the house, and in full view of the road. The families who set up burying grounds like this were comfortable with a daily reminder of those who had passed on. They must have consciously accepted that death was, and is, a part of life.
But that is not usually the case with old burying grounds. Much more commonly, they were sited in an adjacent field. There are many examples of these. I can think of ten such burying grounds just in Delaware Township. They were close to home, but not too close.
And then there are hilltops, any place where there was a great view of the surrounding neighborhood. The Opdycke Cemetery is a perfect example. According to a story related in the Op Dyck Genealogy, in the 18th century, old John Opdycke and his wife Margaret Green were taking a stroll on their plantation. When they came to a hill with a lovely view, Margaret is supposed to have said that that is where she wanted to be buried. And so she was. And many of her family followed her there.
That view is probably not available anymore because of the forests that have taken over all those fields that early settlers labored so hard to clear. There was a time when there was scarcely a tree to be seen, which sounds dreadful, except for the silver lining—there were wonderful views back then.
Which may lead you to ask—Why a view for people who could no longer see?
The question itself tells us something about how people felt, and still do feel, about death and the afterlife. Those views were meant for both the dead and the living. They are meant for contemplation and connection with something larger than ourselves.
Sometimes graves were moved to a new location, usually because someone wanted to make another use of the cemetery’s site.
This usually happens in more urban areas. It plays havoc with our understanding of a place. With the cemetery transformed into a parking lot or a building, and the graves exhumed and bodies or bones put in some mass burial spot, perhaps with a sign referring to the group but not the individuals—the loss is permanent and irreparable.
But here in the countryside, those old cemeteries are just as vulnerable. Farmers have a lot to answer for. After a few generations, many of them saw an old burying ground as a waste of space. I’m thinking particularly of the Anderson family burying ground in Stockton—completely erased by a too-energetic farmer. Had it survived it would have held an enormous amount of historical and genealogical information for one of Hunterdon’s earliest families. And today, it’s just about impossible to figure out exactly where that cemetery was. Even Egbert T. Bush couldn’t find it. It was probably one of those hilltop cemeteries overlooking the Delaware River.
What Burying Grounds Can Teach Us About Neighborhoods
Quite often a family’s neighbors will be buried with them. The Pine Hill cemetery that I wrote about recently is certainly one of them.2
The Barber Cemetery on Lambertville-Headquarters Road began as a family burying ground in the 18th century. Many neighbors of the Barbers are also there, perhaps because of its good location right along the road. But I should note that many of those neighbors were related to the Barbers one way or another. It was a very extensive family.
A couple of other family burying grounds that were also used by neighbors are the Moore Cemetery and the Rake Cemetery. But unlike the Barber cemetery, these are very inaccessible, located way off the main roads.
Back in the horse and buggy days, this was not such a problem—people easily rode over fields to get where they were going. But if it was a wet season, those wagons could do a lot of damage. It got to be too much for Gideon Moore. To save his fields, he gave an acre of land to his church so that future burials could take place right along the road, instead of right along his wheat field.
Burying Grounds Keep a Record of Tragedies
We all know about the high mortality of children in the 19th century. Every cemetery seems to have pathetic stones for infants and small children.
You’ll find sometimes that several members of one family, or several people living in the same vicinity, died in the same year. This is usually caused by a disease like cholera or typhoid, scarlet fever or smallpox. Imagine the suffering for the survivors! And think about how perilous life was before modern medicine came along.
Sometimes there are missing graves. The Higgins family is a good example. Nicholas B. Higgins and his wife Hannah Hill had an especially large family of 15 children. But seven of those children, and Hannah herself, died in or around 1846.
So many people from one family, and yet, I have been unable to find their graves. I have no doubt that they were all buried in a private family burying ground, probably close to the old homestead on Lambertville-Headquarters Road.
But because there were so many of them, the stones probably did not get proper inscriptions. Too much stress and not enough money to set up fancy carved stones for so many graves. And without inscriptions, there was little reason for later owners to take care of the graveyard.
While thinking about mortality, I began to wonder, how were people treated who died by suicide? It was a general policy, we are told, that suicides were banished from consecrated cemeteries—that is, graveyards connected with established churches.
But there was no such prohibition for family burying grounds. When death was a private affair, family burying grounds were a safe haven.
Consider Elizabeth Fisher who died unmarried in 1792, age 37. According to Cornelius Larison, she had been living with her sister Mary and brother-in-law, Abraham Hagaman. She committed suicide by hanging and was buried in a field nearby, not being eligible for burial in a regular cemetery. Peter Boss had a son who also committed suicide. He was buried next to Elizabeth.
However, this rule against suicides was not strictly enforced. John Hagaman, a son of Abraham and Mary, also committed suicide. But he was buried next to his wife in the Presbyterian Cemetery at Larison’s Corner.
I hope I have convinced you that family burying grounds are important. The question now is – What can we do to save them?
First Step: Identify and Locate Them
This is where the Historical Society’s Cemetery Committee has been doing outstanding work. Just figuring out where these places are can be extremely challenging. They have been ignored for so long that Mother Nature has laid a green blanket over them, making them all but invisible, except to ground hogs who seem to think old graveyards were made just for them.
Even some of the well-known old cemeteries, ones that Hiram Deats and Egbert Bush have inventoried, can be hard to find. Simple neglect makes them disappear. Which is why it is so great that we now have the advantage of using GPS to pinpoint their locations and identify their coordinates.
Much of this work has been done by the Historical Society’s Cemetery Committee, headed by Bob Leith, but the work is not finished. Each municipality in our County can help to identify these locations.
Next: Inventory Them
Hiram Deats and Egbert T. Bush were two of the most determined cemetery-chasers I know of in Hunterdon County. And fortunately for us, they worked in the 1920s and 30s. Many of the stones they found are no longer in place—we would know nothing of them if it weren’t for their work.
And just think of the stones that disappeared before they came along. I have frequently studied cemeteries and known from property records that certain people just had to be buried in a certain place, but no stones survived to prove it. The Higgins family I mentioned before is a good example.
When thinking of Inventories, due regard for Find-a-Grave must be taken. I remember when the website got started; I didn’t think much of it because there was so little information there. But in the following years, people really took up the cause, and now there are millions records from all over the world. With Find-a-Grave we now have something you might call cloud-inventories.
A word of caution, however. Inscriptions can sometime be very hard to read unless you have the right kind of lighting. Also, transcribers will sometimes add genealogical information and obituaries. This information is generally pretty good, but not always. Just like online family trees, what you find on Find-a-Grave should be taken more as a clue than a fact.
As part of the Inventory process, I think it’s important to learn about who those people were. I like to write about cemeteries because finding the stories behind the names on the stones is always fascinating; especially finding how the people there might have been related or otherwise connected. Recently I’ve come to appreciate how important it is with family burying grounds to include a history of the owners, and to relate their tenure to the burials that took place.
Next: Clean Them Up!
This is often done as an Eagle Scout project, which is really a great one, because a cemetery that has been cleaned up and repaired will need the same treatment only a few years later, unless there is a regular maintenance program in place. So, even if someone argues “that’s been done before,” it makes no difference if it needs to be done again. I know that the Locktown Baptist Cemetery has been cleaned up at least twice by the Boy Scouts.
Also, there are some descendants of people in these cemeteries who take on the job of caring for them. One of the best examples is the Mount Amwell Project, a group of Reading descendants who have taken care of the old Reading-Johnson cemetery for several years now, and have branched out to include many others.
Another great group is descendants of the Williamsons who make regular trips to the Pine Hill Cemetery in Delaware Township, some coming from as far away as Vermont. They were richly rewarded when they found under a foot of soil the grave of a Williamson who was 100 years old when he died in 1772.
Another preservation issue is the gravestones themselves, which are often badly damage. For instance, the gravestone of that one-time Locktown honcho, Daniel Rittenhouse, was stolen from his cemetery several years ago. Eventually it was found, but it was broken in half. It now rests inside the Locktown Stone Church, waiting for someone with the skills to put it back together and reinstall it.
It does take skill to do it right. Some people with good intentions have made regrettable repairs. It is important to let people know there is a right way, and several wrong ways, to repair a gravestone.
Number 4 on my list: Visit These Cemeteries and Celebrate Them
Cemetery Tours are a great way to share the history, and to raise awareness of these special places at the same time. Many people are curious about old cemeteries in their neighborhoods that they know nothing about. Giving annual tours can satisfy that curiosity and bring about a great appreciation for them.
It won’t be possible to visit every cemetery in your town—some property owners simply won’t allow it. But it is worth trying. Property owners might be more favorable toward guided tours than random visits. They do have a right to their privacy, after all.
Those of use who are concerned about family burying grounds should try to interest young adults in them. It is important to make sure that the next generation will be just as concerned as we are, so that they can carry on the work that we have inherited from those who preceded us.
But how do we preserve these graveyards? They are especially challenging because so many of them have no known owners, and the ones that do may have owners that want them to stay ignored.
Last Step: Taking Responsibility
Getting new owners for forgotten cemeteries is very difficult. No one is clamoring to take possession of them. The Mount Amwell Project has begun to approach townships to take ownership of orphan cemeteries. I sincerely hope that in time, Hunterdon town governments will come to accept the old burying grounds as resources of value to their towns’ histories.
There are other steps that can be taken at the municipal level. I think that all Master Plans should have some language in the section pertaining to Historic Resources that recognizes the importance of family burying grounds to the town’s history, while acknowledging that some of them are on private property.
The statement should encourage landowners to do their best to preserve these places. It should also insist that whenever changes are proposed to properties with graveyards, that due regard for their preservation will be taken.
With this support, Planning Boards can go ahead and ask that cemeteries in new developments be preserved. This is an opportunity that should not be missed.
I learned that lesson back in the 1980s when a new development was proposed that would surround the old Sutton Family Burying Ground. The developer agreed to convey to the township the cemetery lot and access to it, along with a dedicated fund for its maintenance. Recently I learned that that fund had grown to $8,000. This money can be used for gravestone repairs and ground-penetrating radar. Or even establishing a regular maintenance schedule.
In recent years we have seen truly great ancient monuments being destroyed by religious zealots. Why would they bother? Because those ancient places matter to people. They have lasting significance.
This should remind us that our own historic places also matter, and merit our efforts to preserve them. It is up to us to save these places for future generations. And it is up to us to figure out how best to do that.
It will not be easy, it never has been. But we have better tools now, and better ways to communicate. The time has come for a cemetery renaissance. So—let us begin.