Even though they’re long gone, the people who are buried in the South Fork’s oldest cemeteries often have a lot to say about the early days of the towns where they lived, and a new local nonprofit organization has set out to make sure those ancestors can still talk about history — through their headstones.
“These early burying grounds are records. In many cases these are the only records that these people have left,” said Zach Studenroth, a longtime local historian who, along with Kurt Kahofer, another historian and former teacher, and Joel Snodgrass, an expert in stone restoration, has formed the Burying Ground Preservation Group.
While the lives and work of, say, a local town supervisor or members of the clergy may have been documented in detail, Mr. Studenroth said, everyday people often did not benefit from that kind of record-keeping until local towns were formally given the requirement in the 1880s of maintaining records such as births, deaths, marriages and more. Meanwhile, he said, headstones in graveyards were more likely to display when a person was born and died, perhaps how he or she died and even other details about his or her life. Proximity to loved ones also helps with record keeping.
“There was no uniform system to document that information. It might be in family bibles or military records,” Mr. Studenroth said. “Those sorts of records would kind of touch down and catch people from time to time, but we can catch a lot of very interesting and important information from stones. That’s the primary reason for us getting together and focusing on this. This is important work to be done.”
Mr. Kahofer, who left Sag Harbor Elementary School in 2017 after 23 years teaching there, said the people buried in historic burying grounds are “those who made the community what it is,” but their stones are in need of assistance.
“They’re outside in the weather, vulnerable to vandalism, weather, tree limbs, et cetera,” Mr. Kahofer said. “I think it’s important to preserve the objects that tell the history of a place.”
With Mr. Studenroth and Mr. Kahofer doing the surveying, recording, photographing and cleaning of headstones, and Mr. Snodgrass leading the way on repairs and restorations, the Burying Ground Preservation Group has already completed a project at the Quogue Burying Ground for the Quogue Historical Society. They began by carefully cleaning the headstones, read and documented everything, produced a searchable website using the data they’d culled, and held public programs including historic walking tours and a community restoration day.
The cleaning part is critical but extremely sensitive.
“It’s important that you do these things in accordance with standards,” said Mr. Studenroth, who currently serves as consultant to Sag Harbor’s Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review and whose work has been lauded by the group Preservation Long Island. “Mold, mildew, lichens and biogrowth make it virtually impossible at times to read the inscriptions. Once it’s cleaned properly, you can oftentimes read something that wasn’t legible.”
Mr. Kahofer said he thinks of restoring old burying grounds as another type of open space preservation.
“It’s a part of the environment that is often overlooked,” he said. “As I’ve been in cemeteries and cleaning headstones, I’ve realized they are peaceful, important, historic places. Even though they are somewhat protected in terms of development, they are often overlooked as an element of the landscape. We don’t advocate for people tromping through them all the time, but they’re out there and they need some attention.”
The group has received calls from as far away as Mamaroneck to assess old burying grounds, and has its sights set on the one in Sag Harbor – a village-owned burying ground next to the Old Whalers Church, parallel to Madison Street, which Mr. Studenroth said dates back to the 1750s.
“It’s an easy assumption to think that because so may of these sites are next to churches, many of them are church burying yards,” he said, explaining instead that towns, villages and oftentimes private associations and boards of directors are responsible for their upkeep. “It’s just coincidental many times that the church is just adjacent.”
Some years ago, a group of Sag Harbor residents — among them author Dorothy Zaykowski — began fixing up the village’s old burying ground, and led the effort to have its stewardship transferred from Southampton Town to Sag Harbor Village.
“They wrote a book, they surveyed and numbered all the stones,” Mr. Studenroth said. “They did a little bit of repair work at the time but that was not the main thrust of their work. They got a lot done, but that was about 25 years ago.”
Mr. Kahofer called burying ground restoration “a new discovery of preservation.”
“Everyone is focused on historic districts, old buildings and famous places,” he said. “The burying grounds have been overlooked in terms of the care and stabilization. I think this is a relatively new interest and I’m really happy about it.”