Take a turn off that side street along 25A. Find the overgrown path, and follow it to the old tombstones. Any Long Islander who spends time outside has the chance of stumbling across a piece of history on the way to school, while walking the dog, running or just getting some air.
Nissequogue Mayor Richard Bull Smith knows this. He knows his history, that of his family and that of Long Island. And chances are that if you’re taking that jog along the North Shore, you’re running by some of his distant relatives.
He’s a tenth-generation descendant of Richard Smith (alternately spelled Smythe), the founder of Smithtown, and the family still maintains some of its own ancestral burying grounds. They date back to the colonial era, when cemeteries were tucked into corners of family estates.
“One of the challenges, of course, as Long Island has gotten populated and suburbanized, some of these old graveyards and cemeteries are unfortunately subject to vandalism,” Smith said.
Old cemeteries lurk all over Long Island, in woods and backyards, on grassy knolls and farms, in parking lots, on historic estates and church grounds. Laws protect them from desecration, vandalism and disruption, but those risks are so great that many of the people who care for the graveyards asked that their locations not be disclosed in this article.
Some are still in the hands of the families that founded them in colonial times.
Most of the oldest ones have shifted into the care of local towns. These are sometimes in remote, forested locations, hidden from public view and yet subject to vandalism, according to Barbara Russell, the Brookhaven Town Historian.
A rare few find new caretakers through deeds or covenants when properties hit the real estate market. New owners aren’t always able to ward off vandals. Sometimes, they destroy the grave markers themselves.
“There was a bad incident over in Head of the Harbor,” Smith said.
He was talking about what’s known around Long Island as Mary’s Grave, or at least one of the several suspected locations where thrill-seekers pursue the ghost of Mary, a colonial-era woman who died a tragic death and purportedly still haunts the site, according to Smithtown Historian Brad Harris.
The ghost story had been broadcast on local radio, Harris said, and the legend spread with damaging results.
“Somebody had gone after every headstone with a sledgehammer and just pulverized the entire site,” Harris said. To protect the site from future destruction, the homeowner, whose name Harris did not reveal for fear of further vandalism, and town parks workers buried all of the fragments underneath a new layer of topsoil, hiding the ruins.
“And there was an instance in Fort Salonga where the land owner wanted to expand the footprint of his property, so he just destroyed the stones,” said Smith. “Horrible acts like that.”
At times, developers have moved headstones — and maybe the bodies beneath them, though that’s unclear — out of their way. Such was the case at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Port Jefferson, which opened in the 1850s. It contains markers from the mid- to late 1700s that someone transplanted from somewhere-since-forgotten near the village’s main street. A late 19th century state law has since barred developers from digging up or moving gravestones, which is a felony, so they build around them.
“They’re not just in the way of progress now,” said Zachary Studenroth, the Southampton Town Historian who documents and restores burying grounds all over Long Island. “They were in the way in the 19th century.”
The Burr family cemetery sits in the middle of a parking lot off Jericho Turnpike in Commack, surrounded by Home Depot, Staples and other stores.
When asked whether a centuries-old graveyard in front of the store was bad for business, Home Depot’s District Operations Manager Chris Swarthout said no.
The shopping center was already a proven economic center when the store moved in in the 1990s, Swarthout said, adding, “The associates feel like it’s a nice memorial.”
Community members sometimes place flowers on the graves, he said. The stones, though visibly worn, have been propped up with metal braces and, in some cases, repaired with mortar or epoxy. This was not the landlord’s doing but the result of separate efforts by Home Depot and local community groups like Boy and Girl Scouts.
New York State requires town governments to step in when a cemetery goes untended for a period of 14 years. Often, however, towns don’t want that added expense.
“At that point, a town is obligated to take possession,” Studenroth said. “Not all towns want to remember that.”
Upkeep doesn’t cost much, said Studenroth, but it’s difficult to determine exactly how much the towns spend because cemetery upkeep isn’t broken down separately in town landscaping budgets.
State law requires only a small commitment: Towns must mow the lawn, clear debris and repair damaged fences. If a tombstone falls over or breaks, it is not the town’s responsibility to fix it.
As a result, many historic gravesites are littered with fallen and shattered markers, especially colonial-era tombstones that were made from red slate, a notoriously brittle material.
Sometimes, even limited maintenance causes problems.
“The main source of wear and tear is not limbs falling from trees,” Studenroth said. “It’s mowers bumping stones.”
Studenroth and fellow volunteers run several workshops a year to teach people how to clean and reset stones. Volunteers run most restorations, Studenroth said.
Brookhaven Town once had an all-volunteer cemetery committee that repaired and reset grave markers, but the organization has been defunct for about a decade.
Karen Buxton, 73, is a retired librarian who began her foray into civics as a member of that committee. She volunteers her time researching genealogy at the town historian’s office. In pursuing that end, she’s become the local expert on interments.
“She knows more dead people than people alive,” said Three Village Historical Society historian Bev Tyler.
It’s quite possible that she does. On a morning spent touring some of the oldest cemeteries in the Three Village area, Buxton rolled off the histories of dozens of notable dead.
One was Anna Smith Strong, a woman in the famed Setauket Spy Ring who sent signals to a relative of General Nathaniel Woodhull across Little Bay, an extension of Setauket Harbor, during the Revolutionary War by hanging different colored laundry to mark ship movements in the Long Island Sound.
Strong’s newly placed, lavish marble tombstone shows she used the nom de guerre “Nancy.” The Strong family, which maintains the private family graveyard, recently replaced the markers for Anna and her husband, Selah Strong.
“We only get about $60 a year [in dues from family members],” said Don Strong, a direct descendent who now heads the family’s cemetery association, an incorporated nonprofit. “But the family put money together, and we put these up.”
The family gets together for seasonal cleanups, but the association hires a landscaper to take care of the lawn and errant tree limbs.
Strong pointed out a tree that would need to come down.
“Probably next year,” he said, when the ground freezes.
Tree removers prefer the frozen ground so that their equipment doesn’t inadvertently sink into an unmarked grave, Strong said.
Though the Strong family has been in Setauket since the hamlet’s initial European settling in the 1650s, the estate has shrunk considerably. Piece by piece, properties have been subdivided in the neighborhood of Strong’s Neck, which occupies a swath of land surrounded by Port Jefferson and Setauket harbors and Conscience Bay.
Don’s brother, Jack Strong, 75, is the family patriarch. He lives in the family’s centuries-old estate house in Strong’s Neck. When Jack dies, Don said, the family will finally sell the house.
He’ll remain in Strong’s Neck, however. The cemetery will stay with the family — it’s tax-free.