“The rural cemeteries… were America’s first public parks. They were intended from the beginning to be places of resort, not only for those who had friends or relatives buried there, but for the general public as well.”
—John F. Sears, “Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions of the Nineteenth Century”
TOWN OF COCHECTON, NY — Records of the past carved in stone, cemeteries are of special interest to historians, genealogists and poets. Grave markers and monuments and the information and poetry contained thereon speak volumes about the lives of those interred. Wonderful places for meditation, contemplation and recreation, cemeteries serve to commemorate those who came before us, remind us that life on this plane is temporal and console us with the knowledge that present trials will surely pass away.
The word “cemetery” means “sleeping place” in Greek. Scholars argue that its entry into American language heralded an age in which death was no longer considered final, thus making it important that families remain together in perpetuity. Family plots and whole cemeteries dedicated to one extended family became the fashion in 19th century rural America. But there were also other significant differences between rural cemeteries and their city counterparts. Instead of the fancy marble and granite monuments and mausoleums of city cemeteries, rural cemeteries boasted unostentatious local stone markers and natural monuments: grass, trees, shrubs and flowers.
If you’re interested in visiting some out-of-the-way cemeteries containing graves that date back two or more centuries, here are four worth viewing in the Town of Cochecton.
Lake Huntington Presbyterian Cemetery
Heading west on Route 116, just past the old Cochecton Town Hall, the white wooden sign announcing this cemetery is visible from the road, but the cemetery itself is not. A fairly steep uphill climb brings it into view. This semi-manicured cemetery (covered with tall grass and with more than one grave sporting a tree) contains 19th and 20th century graves and quite a few unadorned sandstone and fieldstone markers and obelisk-style monuments from the early part of the 19th century. Although weathering and lichen growth have made many of the inscriptions difficult to read, it’s still fairly easy to see that most of those residing here either died in youth or lived to fairly ripe old age. One woman lived 97 years. Sometimes whole families perished within days of each other. And, at a time when the climate was considerably colder and central heating was as yet unknown, most people died in winter.
East Cochecton Cemetery
Heading toward Route 97 on the Old Newburgh-Cochecton Turnpike, its white wooden sign is plainly visible from the road. This well manicured, gently sloping cemetery contains 19th and 20th century graves. Headstones here show 19th century life spans measured in days (and sometimes hours); one headstone described its occupant’s life span as 25 years, seven months, and four days. (Was real time more appreciated before the advent of mass media?) Another headstone from the 19th century proclaimed a life span of 58 years, despite birth and death dates that clearly indicated a 55-year existence, proof positive that the mathematically challenged are not unique to our time.
Located on the north side of unpaved Stony Road, between Old County Road and Route 116, this cemetery is almost invisible from the road. Only a small, weathered brown wooden sign and a stone wall delineate it from the surrounding forest. It is un-manicured and beautiful in its wildness, and fiddlehead ferns grow everywhere here. Of the four cemeteries, this is one of the oldest, containing graves from the early 19th and 20th centuries. Begun as a community cemetery, it shelters those associated with the Nearing family by both birth and marriage and an unknown number of unrelated others as well. It is now a “closed” cemetery, no longer accepting new residents. But as Ron Nearing, the current caretaker of the cemetery, points out, “Maintenance, preservation and restoration are an ongoing responsibility, something that we owe our ancestors.” It’s a daunting job. One of the most durable materials on earth, stone is nevertheless subject to the destructive forces of nature and human neglect. Noting that many of the older sandstone and fieldstone markers have fallen, shifted, cracked, weathered and split, Nearing says that all stones found within the cemetery walls are considered sacred and treated as such.
Tyler Town Cemetery
On the left-hand side of Tyler Road, heading south, just past its intersection with Ehrly Road, an upright gray stone slab with sign attached is the understated gateway to this cemetery. A fairly steep slope leads to this un-manicured cemetery covered with ferns, brambles and heavy undergrowth. Once designated as a veterans’ cemetery, it is now home to many who never served in the armed forces, including infants. Graves here date from the early 19th century to the present. Founding families Tyler, Skinner, and Nober each have plots separated by ornamental ironwork fences unique to this cemetery. Another remarkable feature of this cemetery is that some of the older monuments contain verses that are legible and relevant even today. (See David Tyler’s inscription at right.)
[Editor’s note: The River Reporter thanks the Keesler and Nearing families for generously sharing their knowledge of these cemeteries.]