When I decided to visit Union Cemetery about a dozen years ago, I hadn’t set foot on those hallowed grounds for nearly thirty years. There are several generations of my mother’s family interred there, the vast majority of whom I had only heard of but never knew. Even back then, the cemetery looked and felt abandoned. The graves were covered by a mixture of grasses and native weeds. Mowing appeared to have been done only on a sporadic basis, as the vegetation was between 6 and 8 inches in length that hot and dry August afternoon. There were but a few headstones that appeared to being regularly tended to by relatives or friends of the deceased. The flowers planted around those markers stood in sharp contrast to the weeds and wild bushes that were taking over the headstones of the neighboring graves.

When I returned some five years ago, the cemetery looked much worse for wear. Vandalism had reared its ugly head and there were several dozen stones that had been toppled, with many of them broken into two or more pieces. There were places where the wild brambles had made it nearly impossible to read the inscriptions on those headstones that remained intact and upright. The once ornate wrought iron fencing was rusting in the summer sun, with at least one of the pillars was lying on the ground and mostly obscured by the overgrown weeds. Mowing appeared to be random and even more sporadic in occurrence than on my previous visit in 2011.

Many headstones were completely obscured by years of overgrowth by invasive plant species by 2017.

Last year, two Easton natives, cousins who had grown up on the family compound off Center Road, had had enough. Bruce and Bob Laskay had many family members interred at Union and the shameful condition of Easton’s once proud and elegant burial grounds needed to be addressed. Unlike most of us who have complained about Union’s slow deterioration over the past several decades, the Laskays were willing to do something about it.

Together, they began to cut some of the heavy brush that appeared to be devouring the fence that faced Stepney Road. Their work was soon noticed, and many passers-by stopped to both admire it and to inquire about lending a helping hand. I was one of those people.

I remembered Bob from when we were teenagers playing hockey on some of Easton’s ponds back in the 1960’s. His enthusiasm about bringing Union back to life was both admirable and inspiring. He mentioned the idea of having a volunteer work party to cut the grass, trim the weeds, and cut many of the bushes and branches that were encroaching on the grounds and obscuring the plots. Since I was a regular contributor to the Easton Courier, I was more than happy to promote the idea both in my weekly articles and on several Facebook pages I administer.

In addition, last April, the boy scouts from Troop 66 of Easton partnered with Troop 306 of Redding and Cub Scout Pack 166 of Monroe to earn community service time for helping to clean up one of the town’s oldest burial grounds. In all they provided about 40 hours of service helping to clear leaves and brush around the cemetery’s southeast entrance.

The first volunteer work day was Saturday, May 7, 2023. Over a dozen community volunteers showed up. They brought their own mowers and power trimmers. Everyone pitched in. While there was no formal plan of attack, people worked in small groups, and within about four hours, there was a noticeable difference in several areas where the weeds and grass had eclipsed a foot in height just hours before.

Some of the lowest headstones were exposed for the first time in several years after the first mowing on May 7, 2022.

Two more sessions followed in the ensuing weeks, each attracting a different mix of volunteers who provided their own tools and who did whatever jobs they were capable of doing. Some consisted of entire families, and some were individuals who had recently moved to Easton who had no vested interest in Union, just a desire to be part of a wonderful community and donate their time to make it a better place to live.

By mid-June, Union Cemetery was looking pretty good. All the grass had been mowed at least once, and the nastiest of the wild bushes and invasive weeds had seen at least some trimming.

By June of 2022, Union Cemetery was taking on a new look as it was well manicured for the first time in many years.

The Laskays should have been very proud of their efforts, and no one would have expected them to do more. But they weren’t about to sit back and admire their work, they were determined to see that it continued and that the grounds Union would see regular maintenance going forward. They spent much of their summer cutting and trimming the grass, all using their own equipment and providing their own fuel and supplies. There were other volunteers who helped, but it was mainly through the efforts of Bob and Bruce that the cemetery was finally looking just as well maintained as any other of the town’s burial grounds.

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. Association president, Darrin Silhavy, and vice president, Sam Partridge Jr., were there to field questions about the dire financial straits the association was currently facing.

Bob Laskay fielding questions in September of 2022 as volunteers listened to plans to reorganize the cemetery association to continue the maintenance the Laskays had begun.

According to Silhavy, largely due to a successful “Go Fund Me” initiative last spring, the association then had about $4,000 in its bank account. However, that amount of cash wouldn’t begin to cover the cost of an entire year’s worth of mowing and trimming; nor would it allow for any repairs of the dozens of toppled headstones.

Multiple articles in the Courier continued to bring attention to the rebirth that was occurring at Union, with some of that attention also attracting donations. Bob Laskay’s longtime connection to the Easton Volunteer Fire Company helped raise awareness of just how many of the Company’s former members were interred at Union.

After learning that at least forty-four former Easton firefighters were buried there, the Easton Volunteer Fire Company made a sizeable donation to Union Cemetery in late October of 2022 for its future upkeep.

The $4,800 donated to Union cemetery comes from a fire department fund in honor of the late Russell Neary, a former Easton Volunteer Fire Department Lieutenant who died in the line of duty on Oct. 29, 2012, during Hurricane Sandy.

This past week, I caught up with both Bob and Bruce as they were beginning their second season of work at Union. Already this spring, they have managed to clear out a large section of overgrown bushes and trees from the southeast corner of the cemetery near the intersection of Sport Hill and Stepney Roads. Lining the area with a heavy layer of wood chips should now help stifle new growth and allow passersby a better view of the grounds.

On the day I visited with them, they were working on righting a couple of vandalized headstones. Not all those stones can be reset or easily repaired, but those that can, the Laskays will attempt to repair by using a small excavator with a bucket and a backhoe.

Bruce Laskay guides the top of a broken monument while Bob carefully lifts it towards its final resting place in late April 2023.

There is still much work to accomplish at Union. One of the many goals Bob and Bruce hope to attain in the near future is the repair and repainting of the 1902 wrought iron fence that surrounds the northern and eastern borders of the cemetery. They are also in the process of assigning a mowing contract to a local landscaping firm that will be doing the work for a much-reduced price – evidently the Laskays’ sense of community is contagious!

The formation of a new board of trustees is still in the works. An attorney has been advising the group pro bono, and it is hoped that all the legal questions will be answered soon so the transfer of power will allow the renewed association to move forward and complete the transformation of Union Cemetery into the vital part of the Easton community it has always been. It is hoped that at least a few younger members of the community will be willing to step forward to serve on the new board so that it will grow and thrive going forward.

Anyone willing to help preserve one of our most historically important burial grounds is encouraged to contact the Laskays via email at 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.

A great big heartfelt “Thank You” goes out to both Bob and Bruce Laskay for all they have done and all they continue to do for the town they grew up in!

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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