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Putting New Life In Old Cemeteries

May 13, 2007
Commentary By TOM CONDON

The Shapleighs came to this country in the 1600s and settled in northern New England. Leaping ahead three centuries to the 1980s, Ruth Shapleigh-Brown organized a family reunion. There was a big turnout. A relative took her to an old, overgrown cemetery in Eliot, Maine, where many of their ancestors were buried.

She was profoundly affected by the experience of touching stones her ancestors had touched centuries earlier, of standing where they stood to grieve. "It was my epiphany - my life changed in five minutes."

She organized a cleanup of that cemetery, and has been researching and restoring old cemeteries ever since.

The remarkable Ruth Brown of Manchester has become a regional and national figure in the movement to preserve historic burying grounds. She's on the board of Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford's South End and a consultant to the Ancient Burying Ground at Main and Gold streets, the city's oldest extant cemetery.

She's developed tours and programs at the city's Old South Burying Ground and East Hartford's Center Cemetery as well as cemeteries from Middlefield to Danbury. She heads the Connecticut Gravestone Network, whose mission is to preserve old graveyards and educate the public on their importance. She received a well-deserved award Thursday from the Hartford Preservation Alliance.

I, too, feel the pull of old cemeteries. I love to wander through them and read the old stones. It is something akin to a religious experience, faith having something to do with a belief in history. Cemeteries are, thanks to our sometimes imperfect respect for the dead, unique historical assets.

I met Ruth Brown and Ray Tubbs in Hartford's second cemetery. This would be Center Cemetery in East Hartford. (Tubbs heads the Friends of Center Cemetery.) When the cemetery was laid out in 1709-10, it was part of Hartford, and would remain so until 1783. Cemeteries such as this are invaluable tools for genealogical study. Ruth has traced the early families of Hartford, the Allyns, Goodwins, Pitkins, Seymours, Welleses et al., and how they grew and intermarried and built the place we have today.

The prominent old families used to help keep up the old cemeteries. Alas, many of these families are dispersed or have died off. Some of the old graveyards in the city have suffered from vandalism or neglect, and need help. Ruth and I visited Old South Burying Ground off Maple Avenue, final resting place of Hannah B. Watson Hudson, who became publisher of this newspaper in 1777. The cemetery was crimped by the construction of Benton Street in the 19th century and has been heavily vandalized over the years.

Ruth has an idea for cemeteries I'd like to endorse: Use them! Make parks out of them. Encourage people to visit.

For example, Washington's historic Congressional Cemetery was a sad mess several years ago, bankrupt, neglected and overgrown. It's been restored and is now used for, among other things, a dog walk.

Tubbs' group is promoting foot traffic in its cemetery, which connects to the Hockanum River linear park. Why not? Public use of cemeteries is not a new idea.

The Colonial graveyards were strictly about death. They were uninviting Calvinist reminders that life was short and that one should prepare for eternal judgment (or else). Thus the marvelous tombstone carvings of skulls, bones and the ever-popular winged death's head.

But in 1830, with the opening of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, came a different philosophy, embodied in the rural cemetery movement. These cemeteries - Hartford's Cedar Hill is a fine example - are park-like and inviting, meant for the living as well as the departed. They were the first public parks in many cases, and were for picnics and carriage rides.

The rural cemeteries gave way to the lawn cemeteries more common today, which aren't quite as bucolic but still good for rollerblading, etc.

Brown would like to see some creative use of the city's historic cemeteries. More visitors would not only mean less vandalism, but more personal investment by today's residents. She said if Old South were a neighborhood park with a flower garden, instead of a fenced-off wreck, it would be better used and better served.

How to get there? Some states - Texas, for example - have state programs to preserve old cemeteries. That being desirable but unlikely in Connecticut in the near term, Brown suggests an alliance of cemetery organizations as well as churches, community and park groups. Much can be done with little money: "You don't have to wait for grants."

Our historic cemeteries are priceless treasures. Let's enjoy them

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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