I grew up on Long Island, where cemeteries were not confined to neatly landscaped parcels behind intimidating gates. Long Island is home to some of the oldest history in the nation and that history is peppered throughout each of the villages and towns. Where there is history, there is death. Where there is death, there are cemeteries. In my town, it wasn’t unusual at all to have a burial plot in the front yard, or a family graveyard tucked in the back of your property. This segment of the cemeteries series is going to be a partial listing of small informal cemeteries found all over my old stomping grounds.
As a teenager, my sister Irene used to work as a groom at a boarding stable after school and on the weekends. The boarding stables that she worked at were within easy walking distance of our home, and were contained on a sizable parcel of land, at least 50 acres. The front of the property contained the main pastures where the owners would host horse shows, but the further back you got into the property, the further you traveled back in time. Back behind the far pastures, the owners of the property showed my sister a log cabin, the original family dwelling stemming back from revolutionary days. The same family still owned the land and maintained the cabin as a piece of family history. Another piece of history that they were custodians of was the little “minute man” cemetery that was a stone’s throw from the cabin, back in the woods. The cemetery was classified as a minute man cemetery because some of the original interments in this cemetery were that of minute men soldiers from the Revolution. These soldiers were farmers, farriers, bankers…basically any able bodied man who had volunteered for the cause. They came from all walks of life, but they shared a common purpose: each of them had to be ready to fight at any given minute. They carried their arms with them about their daily tasks, and if they were called to defend their fledgling country, they would be ever-ready. From the time I heard about the minute man cemetery on this property owned by the descendants of those soldiers, I was struck by the amazing historic thread that this family had maintained over the centuries.
Another little cemetery from my own hometown, Dix Hills, is literally located off one of the main thoroughfares on the Island. If you travel through Dix Hills, on Deer Park Avenue, just north of Wolf Hill Road, you will pass a tiny hilltop cemetery and likely never even know it’s there. A grassy path leads from the roadside up into thick woods to a little clearing. Just a short jaunt from a nearby bus stop, this cemetery contains the graves of soldiers who served in the Revolution, as well as veterans of other wars and their families. Someone cares for this small graveyard. Though there are only a couple of dozen graves here, the grass is never overly long and floral tributes are not uncommon, though the newest grave is almost a hundred years old.
Back when the Long Island Expressway was bulldozing its way east, away from New York City, towards the end points of the Island, there in its path lay a small, inconsequential burying ground containing the remains of some of the earliest settlers of the area. The construction crews were set to pave right over these graves, after all, who alive really cared about these people anyway? Happily, there are often local lovers of history ready to champion the causes of these tiny nuggets of our ancestry. In this case, the path of the expressway was altered just a hair, allowing the little graveyard to stay put undisturbed, while the modern highway buzzed with activity literally just feet away. And if you know where to look, you can pull off the exit and park off the access road to pay your respects to the forefathers of modern Long Island.
My brother in law, Pete who himself has many cemetery stories to tell, has told me about the existence of another little cemetery, really just a set of two or three graves, that share a story similar to the previous graveyard. This one lays beside the train tracks, not too far from one of the stations of the Long Island Railroad. It’s location is in a pleasant wooded area…if you knew where to look as your train steamed east, you could glance out and see the markers peeking through the grass. Sadly most passengers have their noses buried in their newspapers or phones and miss this private little necropolis.
Finally, though this cemetery isn’t hidden away or little-known, we will visit the Huntington Cemetery. In Huntington, famous as being the place where the revolutionary American spy, Nathan Hale was captured by the British, there lies a cemetery positively brimming with history, in the busy downtown area. Surrounded by colonial-era houses and state buildings, complete with false floorboards that lift up to show the cavities where the colonists hid their arms from the British occupying army, this burial ground has a multitude of plots that date from colonial times. This place holds a fond place in my memory…when I was in elementary school, my high school-aged sister Delia used to take me downtown to visit Friendly’s, a favorite childhood restaurant of mine, and afterwards, we would walk down the hilly street to the cemetery, in order to meander among the graves. Each visit, we would compete with one another to see who could locate an older grave than the other.
Ah, good times, good times. Doesn’t everyone have happy, cemetery memories from their youth?