The Sad State of the Union

The essence of a true community burying ground, Union Cemetery at the corner of Sport Hill and Stepney Roads has seen better days. On Saturday, May 7, 2022, the people of Easton will have the opportunity to help begin to bring this historical cemetery back to its former glory by volunteering to cut the weeds and trim the overgrowth that obscures many of the older headstones. Headstones that mark the graves of those who guided the young Parish of North Fairfield from just a few outlying farms in the mid-seventeen hundreds through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and into the twentieth century and beyond. Headstones that have endured years of neglect, many of them vandalized and toppled onto the ground in disrespect.

The first graves at Union date back to at least 1761 when Ebenezer Hubble was interred in the oldest section of the cemetery that sits on the eastern side of the grounds closest to the 1831 Baptist Church building. 1761 was the year before the Parish of North Fairfield was first recognized by the Colony of Connecticut.

At the time, the area surrounding Union was rather remote. The closest house of worship would have been the Congregational Church at the corner of Westport and Center Roads – 1.7 miles to the south. While less than a four-minute trip in a modern vehicle, that journey would have taken at least fifteen minutes by horse or wagon in the middle of the eighteenth century. Why did the residents of Easton choose a burial ground so far away?

By the middle of the 18th century, three out of every ten people who contracted smallpox died from the disease. Burying those who had succumbed to smallpox far enough away from where the general public lived and worked was then considered an essential element in suppressing the spread of the disease. Unlike long established parishes in Europe where burial plots were considered consecrated ground and where almost all religious societies dedicated a portion of the property their church sat on to inter their dead, many churches established in the colonies were more practical in their choices of where to bury their deceased.

In parishes such as North Fairfield, the oldest burial grounds were common to the several religious organizations that offered spiritual guidance to their parishioners. The first of these was the old Gilbertown Cemetery on what is today the Black Rock Turnpike.

Exactly when Union was established is difficult to determine. In researching this article, through the courtesy and dedication of Church Historian Jonathon Stock I scoured the minutes of the Ecclesiastical Society and Congregational Church of North Fairfield looking for mention of it. There was none.

That led me to the conclusion that Union might have started as a burial place for anyone who could afford to purchase a plot there regardless of their religious affiliation. While the only two formal houses of worship in the parish of North Fairfield were then the Congregational Church and the Anglican Episcopal Church that originally stood on Redding Road, there were some other denominations that supplied circuit riders to minister to their worshipers in the outlying regions of the colony. Burying those congregants anywhere but close to where they had lived would have made no sense.

Prior to the building of the Baptist Church in 1831, there are no records that indicate the name of this cemetery. As the years progressed, it became known as the Baptist Cemetery, although deceased parishioners of both the Congregational and Jesse Lee Methodist Churches were regularly interred there. Several newspaper articles from 1893 in the Newtown Bee confirm that designation.

It wasn’t until May of 1902 when the families of those buried in this cemetery became so upset with the lack of care the property was then receiving that they formed an association to maintain and improve it. That association was incorporated with the State of Connecticut as the Union Cemetery Association of Easton and from that point forward, the cemetery was known as Union.

The Union name undoubtedly came about from the collaboration amongst the three parishes whose congregants made up most of the people interred there. “Two solicitors from each the three ecclesiastical societies in Easton were appointed to the initial board of directors,” according to a May 10th article in the Newtown Bee. The first president of the association was Congregationalist Charles F. Silliman. Frederick E. Silliman was the vice president and Edward D. Gillette was the secretary/treasurer. Board members included Anna Seeley, Nettie Ward, Addie Clark, Nellie Wheeler, Mary Mallette, Samuel Wheeler, Mrs. A.J. Sherwood, Henry Osborn and Floyd Tucker. Charles S. Powell was appointed as the first superintendent.

In November of 1902, additional graves were opened to receive reinterments from Bridgeport’s Mountain Grove Cemetery, as family members then wanted their ancestors to be buried closer to home. Articles in the Newtown Bee suggested that the “new” Union Cemetery was seeing an influx of impressive monuments and new headstones. The once handsome iron fence that still surrounds the grounds was built during those first years the association managed the cemetery.

The once ornate iron fence that surrounded the property is falling to ruin and it will likely soon be impossible to repair.

One of the bodies transferred from Bridgeport was that of the Reverend Samuel Gregory Silliman who had died in 1899, but whose brother Frederick was then the vice president of the Union Cemetery Association.

In October 1904, the association requested that the Baptist Society remove its hall that was then sitting within the enclosure of the cemetery. It was subsequently moved to its present location alongside of the church.

There are dozens of toppled and broken headstones that once marked the graves of early Easton residents that are now strewn throughout the cemetery. Some are damaged beyond repair.

Over the years, Union Cemetery has developed the reputation of being Connecticut’s “most haunted cemetery.” While a dubious distinction at best given the lack of any concrete evidence to some of the stories that have been attributed to it, that reputation has led to numerous incidences of vandalism that have resulted in thousands of dollars in damages to many headstones and monuments – many of them irreparable.

Union is still considered an “active cemetery,” meaning that some unused plots remain – more than likely paid for but never used. On a recent visit, I saw at least one headstone that had space for two additional family member names that remain blank. The question is how many empty spaces are there and will anyone ever come forth to claim them? People who move to different locations are not inclined to sell burial plots under their parents’ headstone that were meant for them even if they decide to be interred in a cemetery closer to where they currently reside.

As an active cemetery, Union is not currently eligible for any financial assistance from the town in maintaining the property. That assistance is limited to abandoned cemeteries and falls under the auspices of the town’s appointed Cemetery Committee. Repairing damaged headstones is technically the responsibility of the families whose ancestors are buried there, and the association is only responsible for maintaining the grounds and selling any remaining unassigned burial plots.

Overgrown with vines and difficult to control yucca plants, many headstones are becoming obscured.

And therein lies the conundrum. How does an association that no longer has a steady stream of revenue from the selling of burial plots manage to maintain the property? And when the relatives of people who died 120 years ago are nowhere to be found, who is left to pay for the restoration and replacement of broken and badly vandalized headstones? The answer would seem to be the dissolution of the association and the abandonment of the property. However, that may not be as easy as it would likely appear. What if there are still people out there who hold title to any unused plots? Abandoned cemeteries don’t allow further burials – period!

Until a more permanent solution can be found, several folks have decided to step forward and offer their assistance in making Union Cemetery a more presentable place to honor their deceased relatives. Cousins Bruce and Robert Laskay are spearheading the May 7th work party in hopes of getting things started. The information about May 7th is here:

Friends of the Union Cemetery Association of Easton, a volunteer Cemetery Corporation, is requesting your help in reaching the following goals: (1) Locate family and friends of the deceased that are currently interred there. If you have information regarding this, please contact Bruce Laskay at 203-264-9408 or Bob Laskay at 203-268-9716. (2) Re-establish the Board of Directors as outlined in the by-laws. (3) A grounds maintenance work party is scheduled for Saturday, May 7 at 9:00 a.m. Rain date: Sunday, May 8 at 9:00 am. If it rains both days, please refer to Easton Courier for new dates. This work party is in addition to the work that the Boy Scouts have already completed. Please bring your own tools: lawn mowers, grass trimmers, rakes, brush shears, etc. We thank you for your help!

I hope to see as many of you as possible there helping out. Having just visited Union to take the pictures in this article, I would suggest the following additional items: Heavy work gloves that can withstand large thorns and some serious bug & tick spray!!!

Together, we can make a difference!

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