Graveyards are an appropriate topic for Halloween week, and at this time of year they are often particularly attractive. I should confess that I have always enjoyed walking through cemeteries, reading some of the tombstones, and meditating on life. Something I picked up from my Mom, long ago.
We have four cemeteries that I know of within walking distance. This is St. John’s, next to Hecksher Park. Our town may be unusual in not having a church attached to any of these sites, but many of the places on Long Island are like this. In the case of St. John’s, the congregation is now in the center of town, and this area, still maintained by them, also memorializes the original site of the church back in the early 1800’s.
Huntington was founded in 1653, and some of the markers in Huntington Historic Cemetery at the end of town on Main Street date from shortly thereafter. Not long ago this was a neglected and sorrowful place, full of weeds and fallen trees and irreverent litter, stones occasionally broken for some ill-conceived midnight prank by local drunken kids. It has cleaned up a lot now, for the better.
Sometimes neglected graveyards are fun, but more often they are sad reminders of how even the most glorious lives sink into oblivion. The more pretentious the memorial, the more ironic the setting. But at some point, it is nice for the present to connect to its past, and for people to feel the weight of past generations and centuries and the deeds of those here before us. That’s the meditative mood I want to achieve as I walk through the falling leaves here.
I suppose it’s appropriately ghoulish to visit your own grave occasionally. My wife assures me that we have the plot right here, next to her parents. Since I will spend so much time at “rest” here, I feel it is only right that I walk around it occasionally as well. Besides, who knows if we actually rest or not or if instead we chase rabbits for all eternity.
St. Patricks’ cemetery is about a half mile from our house, on rural Goose Hill Road. It was the original location of a small church where the only catholic priest for Long Island in the very early days would make his rounds and have services here ever week or so. Like many others, the church has moved upscale into the town.
By far, the place with the best view is the Huntington Rural Cemetery rising high on sand hills on the south side of town, between to naturally carved routes into the interior of the Island. This looks north, over the sound to Connecticut. The graves are more recent _ mid 1800’s on _ and some of them, such as this figure, quite extravagant. There is also an early naval admiral _ a local celebrity _ with an old iron anchor on his stone.
It’s still active _ the latest area is dedicated to small children. I love coming over here all times of year. In spite of the motorcycle repair shop in the valley below, near the entrance, and the constant parade of trucks and cars on New York Avenue it can be calming and quiet and nearer heaven than the bustle below. A good place to think and enjoy the trees spread out as if humans were hardly here at all.
Around here, cemeteries are about as close as we get to public sculpture gardens. Of course, the mythology is somewhat more restricted than it is in Europe. Still, it can be a nice stroll in various seasons.
Our town has two other public statues, on Main Street at each end of the five block central area. Up on the hill coming in from the west is a fairly bizarre bronze statue of Columbus, erected when the inhabitants went heavily Italian the middle of last century. On the other end, more traditional near the historic cemetery and in front of the soldiers and sailors memorial is a clunky cement or granite carving of a civil war infantryman. The local art museum is too sophisticated to allow anything representational near its grounds, of course.
The Rural Cemetery still has the old winter cold vault, where cadavers would be stored when the ground was too frozen to dig with picks and shovels. This was common, of course, before back-hoes made the seasons irrelevant. We take an awful lot of the power we command for granted, and forget how recently it became inexpensive enough to use for just about anything.
I try not to romanticize the past too much. I doubt it was ever grand fun to be a pick and shovel grave digger, even if you ran into Yorick. I am certain I myself would rather be sitting in a warm back-hoe cabin than out in the nasty wet mud of March thaw. Much too easy to pick and choose what we think it was like in other times, as we still do when we consider the ways of other cultures.
Looking to the west from the top of the historic cemetery, the whole town is laid out in the valley before you. Back in the old days, when most of the trees were cut down for farming, you could command a fine view all the way to the harbor.
Count Rumsfeld, on the British side, certainly thought so. He knocked down the rebel tombstones and used them as the platform for his cannon “defending” the town. This feat is well documented by all kinds of markers nearby, always ignored by the heavy traffic on 25A. Some would say he had no respect for the dead, some would say he was just a practical man, but probably he was just ticked off at the locals.