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Between a Headstone & a Hard Place – Union Cemetery

Anyone who has passed by Easton’s Union Cemetery this summer has certainly noticed a difference in its appearance of late. Unlike the past few summers, the grounds are neatly mowed and the weeds and unkempt shrubs that formally obscured many of the headstones have been trimmed or removed. While many people have answered the call to volunteer in helping with this task, it has been mostly the effort of two cousins who grew up in Easton who decided to tackle the daunting task of cleaning up one of the town’s oldest burial grounds. Those men are Bruce and Bob Laskay.

Spring of 2022, the first mowing in over a year at Union, courtesy of cousins Bob and Bruce Laskay using their own equipment and fuel.

The benign neglect that frustrated the Laskay’s had also fueled the mostly unwelcomed notoriety that Union has earned as being one of the most haunted cemeteries in New England. Ed and Lorraine Warren’s book “Graveyard” recounted tales of Easton’s most famous ghost, the White Lady. While many people are convinced that paranormal activity exists at Union, others are more skeptical. But one thing cannot be denied, the cemetery has become a mecca for ghost hunters and curiosity seekers, and its unkempt grounds have given it an eerie aura that has only added to its mysterious happenings.

Despite signs and an ordinance that prohibit access to the grounds at Union after dusk, the cemetery has suffered several instances of vandalism over the past few years, the worst one occurring in 2012, when 51 headstones were either toppled or snapped from their anchorage on a Saturday night in early August. The damage exceeded $50,000 and was not covered by insurance. In July 2019, 40 more stones were vandalized, most of which still litter the grounds with no monies available to restore them to their rightful positions.

August 2012 after 51 headstones were either toppled or broken away from their anchorage.

History

The first graves at Union date back to at least 1761 when Ebenezer Hubbell 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 – today’s Easton – was first recognized as an entity by the Colony of Connecticut. It is not known exactly when the Union name came into existence, but early writings referred to the cemetery first as the “Old Cemetery,” then the “Baptist Cemetery,” – likely based solely on its proximity to the church, and finally, “Union” after the present association was incorporated in 1902.

Unlike some early colonial communities, none of the churches in the Parish of North Fairfield had a dedicated cemetery that was adjacent to its house of worship. The earliest burial grounds in the area were the Gilbertown Cemetery and what would later become Union.

Union sits on 5.2 acres of land. It has grown from east to west with many of the oldest plots dating back to the Revolutionary War era. The center section of the cemetery has a mixture of graves dating between the early 1800’s and the latter part of the 20th century. The western most section – the one nearest Sport Hill Road – contains headstones mostly from the late 1800’s forward.

Many of Easton’s oldest family names are well represented at Union. Congregants from the Jesse Lee Methodist Church, the Congregational Church, and the Baptist Church make up the largest majority of those interred there. When a new association was formed in 1902, two solicitors from each of the town’s three ecclesiastical societies were appointed to the initial board of trustees. That association was formed to improve the conditions at Union, as it had fallen into great disrepair during the poor economic times of the 1890’s.

Present Day

One hundred and twenty years later, a similar situation at Union exists today. Out of fresh plots to sell, the association has spent the little money they had in reserve to maintain the cemetery over the last few years. With no new income, those funds have now been depleted. Repairs and righting of fallen headstones have gone unattended for multiple years.

Early Spring prior to the first mowing

To add to Union’s current problems is the lack of consistent and accurate record keeping. As older members of the association either passed on or moved away, there were no new people interested in taking their place. Beginning in the 1970’s, Union’s records either weren’t being kept current, or some may have been lost over the years. Much of what has transpired since that era was known to only the very few people who kept Union going. When association president and sextant Joseph Silhavy died in 2016, his son was left to carry on, but with very little information on how the operation was run or how many burial plots were still to be filled.

The last known survey and plotting of gravesites occurred in 1972. Done by Marshall C. Nye it was updated and filed in 1975. Nye’s work was based on previous notes made by Francis Mellen. The link to the Connecticut Digital Archive of Nye’s 45-page report is here: http://hdl.handle.net/11134/140015:151

Nye’s numbered maps of Union no longer correspond with the graves that are there now after dozens more were added after 1975.

While Nye’s maps and headstone descriptions are most helpful in locating some grave sites, those maps are sometimes difficult to navigate since there have been an unknown number of new graves dug over the past 45+ years – many of which are located between the plots on Nye’s map. What is needed at this juncture is a ground penetrating radar survey that will identify where bodies are buried – regardless of whether a memorial headstone is in place. Once that has been completed, a new map can be created and then populated with the names on the existing headstones. Knowing exactly which spaces are occupied will then allow the sextant to fulfill the association’s obligations to supply gravesites to those families who still hold contracts/deeds that have not yet seen an internment.

Prior to the current president and sextant Darrin Silhavy taking over the reins from his late father, the association had already begun to run low on funds. As an active cemetery, Union had never sought town funding, and while it remained solvent, it likely wouldn’t have qualified.

Given the current financial position of the association, there are a couple of sections that are outlined in the current CGA Statutes governing cemeteries in Connecticut that might offer a glimmer of hope to the organization:

Sec. 19a-295. (Formerly Sec. 19-146). Ownership and management of burial grounds. Town appropriations. Towns and ecclesiastical societies may procure and hold lands for burial grounds and provide a hearse and pall for the burial of the dead. Cemeteries may be acquired, owned and managed and controlled by such towns and ecclesiastical societies, and by cemetery associations heretofore incorporated or incorporated as provided in section 19a-296, and by no other persons, firms or corporations. Any town may appropriate annually such sum as may be necessary to maintain and properly care for public cemeteries and public burying grounds owned or controlled by such town, and any town may appropriate annually such sums as may be necessary to aid in the maintenance and care of public cemeteries and public burying grounds owned or controlled by ecclesiastical societies or cemetery associations.

That last sentence suggests that a municipality may appropriate funds to “aid” a cemetery association in maintaining the grounds they control. The question that the Union Cemetery Association faces is how to go about convincing the town that it requires their assistance to keep the cemetery properly maintained. The word “aid” in the statue is also somewhat ambiguous in that suggests less than total funding, so even if the town agrees to some amount of funding, would it be enough for the association to do the needed mowing, trimming, fence repairs, and headstone righting?

The following section may offer more direct assistance if the current association is not deemed to be “functioning” given the dearth of records and the fact that the association has gone for several years without the prerequisite number of trustees (3) as required by the State to remain in compliance with its bylaws.

Sec. 19a-308. (Formerly Sec. 19-159). Care of neglected cemeteries. Civil and criminal liability for undertaking care and maintenance. (a) In any town in which there is a burial ground or cemetery containing more than six places of interment and not under the control or management of any currently functioning cemetery association, that has been neglected and allowed to grow up to weeds, briars and bushes, or about which the fences have become broken, decayed or dilapidated, the selectmen of such town may cause such burial ground or cemetery to be cleared of weeds, briars and bushes, may mow the ground’s lawn areas and may cause its fences or walls to be repaired and kept in orderly and decent condition and its memorial stones to be straightened.

(b) No municipality or employee, officer or agent of a municipality shall be civilly or criminally liable for undertaking the care and maintenance of a burial ground or cemetery, as described in subsection (a) of this section.

Bob Laskay talks about the future of Union on September 10, 2022. Photo courtesy of Nancy Vitone.

A meeting was held on Saturday, September 10, 2022, on the grounds of Union Cemetery. With about twenty-five interested volunteers and family members of those interred at Union present, Bob and Bruce Laskay laid out their plans to bring the association into compliance with the bylaws that govern it. Current association president, Darrin Silhavy, and vice president, Sam Partridge Jr., were there to field questions about the dire financial straits the association is currently facing.

According to Silhavy, largely due to a successful “Go Fund Me” initiative this spring, the association now has about $4,000 in its bank account. However, this amount of cash doesn’t begin to cover the cost of a year’s worth on mowing and trimming; nor does it allow for any repairs of the dozens of toppled headstones.

Darrin Silhavy, Sam Partridge Jr. & Bruce Laskay answer questions about the state of Union Cemetery on Sept. 10, 2022. Photo courtesy of Nancy Vitone.

In Redding, the historic cemetery committee oversees six historic cemeteries that are now maintained by the town. All six would easily fit within the boundaries of Union with at least an acre to spare. These six cemeteries cost the town of Redding $15,000 this year to mow and trim twice a month, so the $4,000 in the Union account is woefully short when it comes to even the simplest of ground maintenance.

There was a real interest at the meeting held on the 10th in reviving a working board of trustees aimed at improving the association’s financial position.

Fortunately, the Laskay’s, along with a few other regular volunteers, have stepped up to mow and trim Union this summer at their own expense using their own equipment. It takes about 40-man hours to accomplish this repetitive task, and no one expects the association will be fortunate enough to have a constant supply of volunteer workers to keep the grounds looking good going forward. A steady influx of cash will be needed to keep the property looking presentable.

In addition to the required mowing, the once beautiful antique iron fencing that surrounds much of the cemetery needs immediate repair. It is badly leaning or coming apart in several of its sections. At least one of the ornate pillars at the entrance to the cemetery has fallen and is lying in the grass waiting to be attended to.

Damaged fence and broken iron pillar wait for long needed repairs and restoration.

There are currently in excess of 50 damaged memorial stones that remain scattered about the grounds after having been toppled during the multiple incidents of vandalism at Union over the past 10 years. Those stones need to be righted and many will require some amount of repair prior to being reset in their proper position. Their positions on the ground are sometimes obscured and present a danger to those people walking along the many rows of headstones searching for the graves of their ancestors.

Spring of 2022. Headstones vandalized in July 2019 still in need of righting and repositioning due to total lack of available funds.

While some funding for those repairs may be available through grants – the DAR being a good example of an organization that will provide financial assistance for the repair and restoration of older stones – qualifying for those grants is both tedious and time consuming. In addition, most grant applications require a fair amount of information that provides proof that the organization is in good standing with both the state and the town. Proof that the current association may have difficulty providing.

 Section 19a-296 of the Statues governing cemeteries requires that:  The board of directors or board of trustees of any cemetery association shall hold an annual meeting of the association. At such annual meeting, the board shall accept an annual financial statement that shall contain an accounting of income and expenses of the cemetery association for the preceding fiscal year and an accounting of assets owned by the association. Such financial statement shall be included in the minutes of the annual meeting at which such financial statement was accepted. The board shall retain the minutes of such annual meeting for a period of not less than twenty years after such meeting.

Do those minutes exist? And is there an annual financial statement attached to each of them? Members of the association elect the board of Trustees, but who are those association members? These are just a few of the unanswered questions that must be resolved before a new board of trustees can move forward to apply for either town assistance or available grant opportunities.

Urgent Needs

It is apparent that the first thing that is needed is a legal assessment of the current status of the association.

To that end, the association needs a competent attorney to lend them a hand by offering some pro bono advice and guidance. Surely there is someone with those qualifications in Easton who either has ancestors interred at Union or just plain loves this town enough to donate a few hours of his or her expertise to the cause. So, if you are a licensed attorney, please donate a few hours and share your legal expertise so that Union can remain a vital part of our community!

Anyone willing to help preserve one of our most historically important burial grounds is encouraged to contact the Laskays via email @ unioncemeteryofeaston@gmail.com. or by telephone at one of the numbers listed below. Bruce Laskay can be reached by phone at 203 264-9408, and Bob at 203 362-9864. With both men, please leave a message. The mailing address for the association is Union Cemetery of Easton. PO Box 452, Easton, CT 06612.

Easton has always been about community. Let’s keep that tradition alive by working together to preserve our heritage at Union.