How do you explain that interest to someone not blessed to share it — the cool stones, the sad-eyed marble angels, the lifetimes of stories buried there? The minute she was old enough to go exploring on her bike, McHugh pedaled to all the burial grounds around Berlin and Kensington to touch the stones and imagine the lives of the people lying beneath. On road trips, she was the first to scream "Stop the car!" when an interesting burial plot flashed by.
Weird, yes, but it was unintended preparation for her eventual job in a bone yard — and not just any bone yard but Hartford's venerable Cedar Hill Cemetery, which for nearly 150 years has been the final resting place for many of Hartford's bold-face names.
McHugh came on board 12 years ago as executive assistant to the executive director, and from that vague job title she launched the popular Tea and Sympathy program on Victorian mourning etiquette. She joined with others to label the cemetery's diverse plant life. She organized bird walks and tree walks and researched the graves of not just the big names but lesser-knowns who added to the fabric of Hartford. She threw open the gates and, like an archaeologist, kept uncovering interesting stories about the residents of Cedar Hill.
She also excelled at telling those stories. Cemetery tour-goers followed enthralled as McHugh scampered stone to stone, fleshing out people long cold in their graves. Take the Colt family. In her talks, McHugh explored the better-known firearms magnate Samuel, but she was more interested in his wife, Elizabeth, benefactress of so many Hartford institutions — including Cedar Hill, which took off, in large part, because of her.
Elizabeth Colt had buried her husband and four of her children in the grounds of her gracious mansion, Armsmear, on Wethersfield Avenue, but right after the park-like cemetery opened, she placed in Section 2 a graceful 32-foot-tall family memorial in pink Scottish granite.
In McHugh's words, once the cemetery got the stamp of approval from Mrs. Colt, "the rest of high society came galloping out." Author and suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker. Financier J.P. Morgan. Even, eventually, the entire Colt family. Elizabeth interred her son, Caldwellthere after his death in 1894, and then moved the rest of the family to the Cedar Hill plot. She joined them in death in 1905.
The Colt monument is showing its age, and extensive restoration to restore chipping and corrosion began Monday. Wendi M. Fralick, development director, said the cemetery's foundation is raising money to complete the repairs.
Sadly, McHugh won't be around to see the finished product. The irreplaceable researcher retires at month's end. She has, however, given a little thought to her own monument. She likes to say that if she were buried in the gracious, rolling slopes of Cedar Hill, she'd want the plot marked with a reclining nude — "touched up, though," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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