Our oldest cemeteries offer an accurate insight into the families who once called this area their home. Unlike oral histories, those decennial U.S. Census reports, family trees copied on Ancestry.com, and old newspaper articles that often get things wrong, the aging headstones in Easton and Redding’s original burial grounds provide us with accurate spellings of our ancestor’s names and the correct years in which they were born and died. Preservation of those headstones and the cemeteries in which they stand is an important part of what some of us do.

To those of us who study and preserve history, curating our historical cemeteries is an essential part of our mission. While the deceased don’t talk to us, their gravesites certainly do.

One of my colleague’s teenage daughters has been known to introduce her mother to her friends by saying, “This is my mom. She works with dead people.” While true, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Thanks to Charles R. Hale, Connecticut was the first state in the nation to preserve the inscriptions, in their entirety, of all the headstones located within its known cemeteries. Beginning as a hobby in 1916, after interviewing farmers, town clerks, and clergymen in his effort to uncover as many graves as possible, Hale spent countless hours crawling through the state’s underbrush searching for fallen and hidden headstones. He soon determined that many cemeteries had been abandoned and long forgotten. In one municipality, the town clerk told Hale that he knew of only nine cemeteries, but Hale eventually discovered that there were ninety-five; many of them only one and two person plots, and many of them hidden from sight by years of overgrowth with headstones that had fallen and were then covered by decomposed vegetation.

Many of the headstones seen in this 1908 photograph are no longer standing at this cemetery in Redding.

In the 1930’s, Hale was given the official title of Connecticut’s state Military Necrologist after he produced the locations of the graves of more than 40,000 veterans who had fought in the sixteen wars and conflicts beginning with the 1637 Pequot War in Fairfield. Commissioned by the WPA in 1932, Hale and his crew transcribed every known headstone in over two thousand of Connecticut’s known burial grounds. In all, the group listed twenty-two hundred and thirty-seven cemeteries, including many that were hidden beneath the waters of modern reservoirs, or that had been washed away by flood waters through the centuries.

While Hale’s work continues to be an invaluable resource for modern historians, there are thousands of men, women, and children who have perished since Hale’s extensive survey and whose headstones are now in abandoned and badly neglected cemeteries throughout the state.

Recognized and defined by statute, there are two designations for cemeteries in Connecticut – active and abandoned. Active cemeteries are defined as those that are organized/incorporated and run by a board of directors or trustees. They may or may not be at their full capacity, but until no interments have been made for a period of forty years, they will not be considered abandoned by the state. Cemeteries that have not had a burial for more than forty years and that are no longer actively managed and cared for by an organization, can be considered as being abandoned.

While active cemeteries can be considered for assistance from the town government within the jurisdiction where they are located, the town is not required to help with maintenance of those entities. On the other hand, abandoned cemeteries can become the responsibility of the town. The question then becomes, how interested is each town in preserving those historic cemeteries and to what extent? Some simply choose to mow the grounds once or twice a year and some take the responsibly of perpetual maintenance and upkeep more seriously.

Both Easton and Redding have several cemeteries that fall under the official heading of abandoned. In Easton, there are the Gilbertown, Center, and Den cemeteries on Black Rock Turnpike, and Lyon on Sport Hill Road.

Samuel Staples 1787 headstone at Gilbertown.

Prior to the 2009 legislation that allowed Connecticut municipalities to take over their abandoned cemeteries, Easton initiated an adopt-a-grave program through the Senior Center, where individuals could opt to donate $50 for the renovation of a particular gravesite, but they would also agree to pay for future maintenance as it became necessary. Needless to say, such a plan had a minimum of takers.

It was estimated that Easton’s four abandoned cemeteries would require about $700,000 to fully restore them to their original glory. That sum included the restoration and repair of hundreds of fallen or badly weathered headstones but did not include the costs of perpetually maintaining the grounds going forward.

Under the 2009 state law, prior to taking control of any abandoned cemetery, each town is required to post a legal notice for three consecutive weeks and set a date for a public hearing about cemetery ownership. If no one comes forward to assert ownership of the cemeteries at that hearing, the town can take over that cemetery.

After Easton assumed ownership and control of its abandoned and neglected cemeteries, a committee was adopted, and six members were selected and approved by the selectmen to oversee the maintenance and restorative needs of those properties.

In Easton, Park and Recreation is tasked with keeping three of the four cemeteries mowed. The fourth, Den, is surrounded by Aquarion property and is completely landlocked, and thus, except for some much appreciated volunteers doing some work there a few years ago, it sits looking much the same as it did prior to the town taking control of it. Other than that, the town funds an extremely modest budget for the committee to put towards items such as fence repairs or the occasional headstone restoration. But with the extravagant cost of restoration and repair of headstones, the entire annual budget wouldn’t provide a fraction of what is needed to properly restore even one of these properties, let alone all four.

Much of what has been done at these cemeteries comes as a result of private donations, volunteer work, and the untiring efforts of the members of the Easton Cemetery Committee who do everything in their power to raise money through hosting events and informative tours. Luckily, there are also grant monies available.

Sanford Cemetery on Sport Hill Road in Redding

The situation in Redding is quite similar. Here there are six cemeteries under the watchful eye of the recently re-established Redding Historic Cemetery Committee. Redding’s committee is made up of five appointees by the board of selectmen. Like Easton, their budget is also minimal. The town pays for a private contractor to mow, trim, and prune the overhanging trees in addition to perfroming a comprehensive spring and fall cleanup. The cemeteries covered there are Sanford on Sport Hill Road, Ferry on Poverty Hollow, the Old Burial Ground on Great Pasture, Marchant on Marchant Road, the Read Cemetery on Cross Highway, and the Lonetown Cemetery on Lonetown Road.

The Historical Society of Easton is proud that several members of our board of directors serve on the cemetery committees of both Easton and Redding. Our mission is more than simply collecting artifacts and historical documents. It is to be an active part within the communities in which we reside. By assisting in the preservation of our local burial grounds, we are also able to expand our knowledge of the local individuals and families that made both Easton and Redding such great places to live and raise a family.

We are also pleased to announce that this past week, both towns were among the 41 in the state to be awarded a $5,000 grant to help in the effort to restore and maintain our historic cemeteries. https://portal.ct.gov/Office-of-the-Governor/News/Press-Releases/2023/03-2023/Governor-Lamont-Announces-State-Grants-to-Municipalities-for-Maintenance-of-Neglected-Cemeteries

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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books