Sunday Pastries With the Dead 17
A circa-1765 churchyard cemetery in a bustling New Jersey borough.
Today’s graveyard residents are not remotely lonely—in fact, I think they could do with a little less action. Their plot is sprawled on the corner of a busy intersection in the middle of a densely-populated New Jersey borough.
The Baptist church beside it was the first in the area—the land was donated to the congregation in 1765, after which a wood structure was built and the first burials took place. The church was so prominent that it determined the location for the town’s main street—though if the crumbling, broken headstones throughout its cemetery are any indication, it has long since lost its position as the nucleus of the region.
I almost never come across another person at the burial grounds I visit, but today I paused when I saw a man walking on the far side of the graveyard. “How nice that someone else is here paying tribute!” I thought. Until I realized he was just taking a shortcut to the strip mall on the other side of the road. I wasn’t the only one who heaved a sigh at that—it felt as though all 300 or so of the interred joined me.
The oldest headstones in the graveyard were a special source of fascination. The first, belonging to Margaret Thatcher, who died in 1771, is made of an incredibly unique stone (I think it’s marble? I really can’t tell!) and bears the gorgeous folk-style lettering of the era. The next, for Lewis Chamberlin, who died in 1772, is what’s called a cenotaph—a memorial for a person buried elsewhere. In this case, his headstone gives the location of the family plot where he’s interred. Cenotaphs are commonly reserved for soldiers whose graves are unmarked—men lost on battlefields and at sea—so I’d love to know the reason why Chamberlin received a marker here (perhaps he was a founding member of the church? Or he was first buried here, then reinterred at home?)
There were also some beautiful, unique symbols among the headstones. 11-year-old Sallie A. McCrea’s gorgeous slate grey memorial is decorated with art nouveau flourishes and has a dove in flight (meaning innocence and peace) on the back.
The Gano family’s grand memorial—also decorated in the art nouveau style of the late 1800s—is topped with an elaborate urn. In this case, it’s draped (symbolizing corporeal trappings being shed as the soul rises) and is accented with a beautiful flying angel (standing for the deceased’s ascent to heaven).
I enjoyed today’s pastry not far from a new-to-me symbol. I knew immediately that John Y. Leigh’s triangle with a six-pointed star in the middle had to stand for an organization or affiliation—I just wasn’t sure which one. I consulted all of my cemetery symbolism guides, along with Google, and couldn’t find an exact match. But I know the Freemasons (an ancient order stemming from stonemason guilds) often place their symbology within triangles, and that in Freemasonry the Star of David/Hexagram/Solomon’s Seal/David’s Shield represents God, the uniting of the elements, and creation—so that’s the most educated guess I can muster.
Along with a few new memorials and symbols to ponder, this place really delivers the goods when it comes to epic historical names. Some of my favorites: Urah Higgins, Cornelius I. Nevius, Trimmer Aller (okay but he was kind of a babe, though??), Dilts A. Higgins, Euphemia Van Fleet, Margaretta Teats, Enoch Swallow, and last but so very, very not least…Sandy Lemons. I’ll leave you with the image of a beachfront cocktail bar in your mind (or is that just me?)—until next Sunday, fellow cemetery lovers!
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