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The Memorial Cemetery of St. John’s Church, Cold Spring Harbor, New York: Another Kind of Planting Fields

Memorial Cemetery of St. Johns Church - Click to view large or buy print

The Chapel at the Memorial Cemetery of St. Johns Church

“You can spare me the gory details,” Miss Bronwen said, pulling her hat down over her ears as the wind blew a particularly vicious howl our direction, showering us with snow from the branches of the overhanging trees.

“It’s not like we were out there copulating on fresh graves or anything like that,” I said, trying to explain myself. “But back in the day, when a boy and a girl wanted to be alone, where I come from, they headed out into the country.”

“Oh I’ve heard all about these midwestern traditions of yours,” she laughed. “You and Betty Lou would head out to watch the submarine races!”

“No no no no!” I laughed. “We weren’t into the whole communal thing, though there was Blackout Boulevard which often had a gaggle of parked cars along it on a Saturday night. Though those people were more often smoking dope rather than playing footsies with their dates.”

“Aha!” she charged. “The voice of experience speaking.”

“Well we won’t go into that right now,” I responded. “But when a guy and a girl wanted to be alone, as I was saying, you headed out into the country. And on a weekend night in particular, there was a lot of traffic out there. So you looked for long, private and dark country roads. Particularly those that were on top of hills so you could see car lights coming from the distance. And quite often, those happened to be roads which led to country graveyards.”

“And so it’s your theory that this was the Long Island equivalent to that?” she said, gesturing to the tombstones surrounding us. “That this hallowed sanctuary of the dead has long been used for romantic rendezvous for the young ofOyster Bay and environs?”

“Well it’s not that isolated,” I answered, “But thirty, forty, fifty years ago, sure. It would certainly be a likely candidate.”

Memorial Cemetery of St. Johns Church - click to view large or buy print

Memorial Cemetery of St. Johns Church

We were strolling through the Memorial Cemetery of Saint John’s Church of Cold Spring Harbor, conveniently located along Route 25A, between Oyster Bay and Cold Spring Harbor. Actually we were trudging more than strolling, as the night before had left three inches or so of snow on the ground. It had been a thick, wet snow which left the white stuff piled on branches, tombstones and anything else that might hold it.

“In the early days of the country, people usually buried their dead in family plots, usually located in churchyards. InEurope, and in some cases here as well, the wealthy were buried inside the church itself. Where I come from, the small towns of southern Illinois and Indiana, a lot of the time there would be a family plot on the family farm. As the farm would change hands, or the church grew over time, those graveyards grew larger. But they never reached a scale like this.”

“So this is like a glorified version of the village churchyard?” she asked.

“Exactly. The only way to get in is to be a member of the church or the child of a church member.”

According to legend, the best places were on top or on the sides of hills, facing east, to have the best view of the rising sun on judgment day. The south was also choice ground, but the north was referred to as “the Devil’s plot.” Overcrowding in the village churchyard soon became a problem, and the garden cemetery was the solution. In the book, “Beyond the Grave” by Troy Taylor, the author discusses the situation brought on by years of burial in small spaces. Coffins were crammed side by side, placed on top of each other, and as a result the ground of the cemetery might be twenty feet or more above the level of the church floor. Walls were built around cemeteries in Paris to keep the coffins from slipping out, where the decomposing dead were frequently being found scattered on the Paris streets.

As a result, garden cemeteries began springing up in Europe, most famously Pere-Lachaise in Paris, Kensal Green and Highgate near London, and Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”With the advent of the garden cemetery,” I continued, leading Miss Bronwen along the path which started down the hill, the graveyard became a popular place to have a stroll, a picnic, or any number of recreational pursuits.”The snow had made the stone stepsleading down slippery, so the going was slow.

“This is one of my favorite cemeteries,” I said. “I love the paths going through the woods, the way the plots are carved out of the hills and lined with field stone, the stairs and alcoves. If you didn’t know the place was a cemetery, it would be easy to forget.”
“You’re right,” she said, eyeing a row of mausoleums running along the side of the hill. “Except that Count Dracula might pop out of those at any moment.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “Those are on the creepy side I admit. But standing here and looking out on the side of the hill, you can’t even see another grave, which is pretty amazing considering that there are probably a few hundred out there.”
Which is true. Aside from the paths running in and out of the trees and greenery, it just looks like an overgrown, though still fairly well tended wooded hillside. The plots themselves are connected to the main trails by offshoots, often fairly elaborately landscaped. Even this time of year, the grounds are still quite green from the evergreen and holly bushes, as well as a good selection of conifer trees which over the years have grown up quite nicely.

Memorial Cemetery of St. Johns Church - click to view large or buy print

Memorial Cemetery of St. Johns Church

We walked quietly around the grounds, the snow making the hush seem even more appropriate. That the grounds feel well designed and well tended is appropriate. Founded in 1859, most of the cemetery was designed by noted landscape designers, the brothers Olmstead, who designed the grounds at Planting Fields Arboretum and whose father designed the gardens of the White House, as well as Central Park in Manhattan. There are more than 6,000 people buried in St. John’s, and a large plot, which can be up to three acres might set you back $30,000.

There’s what used to be referred to as the “colored section” for African-Americans, a free-ground for paupers, ironically enough all buried just yards from millionaires.

This certainly isn’t a poor country graveyard. Otto H. Hahn, the famous philanthropist who also hired the Olmstead brothers to design his yard at Oheka Castle is buried here, as is former Secretary of War Harry L. Stimson. In addition there’s a chairman of General Motors (no doubt currently turning over in his grave), and a former president of CBS.

And yet there is a certain modesty about the place, particularly in the older, original section. Though these might have been wealthy families, the tombstones themselves are seldom elaborate or obtrusive. Instead of the focus being on the individual, it’s about creating an environment of natural beauty and peaceful dignity. What St. John’s has that other large cemeteries lack is privacy.

“I like the way the plots are shielded from public view. It would be nice to visit the grave site of someone you love and be able to sit, remember them and not be disturbed,” Miss Bronwen said, brushing the snow from a stone bench.

“And if I might add,” I said, offering her a glove to help, “a nifty place to make out.”

Memorial Cemetery of St. Johns Church - click to view large or buy print

Memorial Cemetery of St. Johns Church

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Callie October 3, 2009, 11:23 pm

    Wow…….thats pretty dang scary if ur like 3 years old come on make it morrre scary lik jason’s woods hahaha jk

  • Daniel December 27, 2010, 3:40 pm

    It has been life changing to have worked as a caretaker on this forty acre piece of sublime peace and truth. Far enough removed from the daily illusions of what we have perceived as “life” one can remember what is true. A journey through the darkness will always make one see things for the first time as they truly are. Fear has been a pack of wolves chasing you down your whole life. Stop, turn around and let them devour you. What will be left is what you always suspected yourself to be.
    Where I once found fear,horror,pain, I see Truth.


    • Colleen Yates February 3, 2017, 12:55 pm

      My Great Grand father used to be the care taker there as well. Sir Name /Michie. He as well as multiple family members, are buried there. Thank you for caring for such a Beautiful place!

  • nellie January 2, 2011, 4:43 pm

    i used to go to st john’s cemetery when i was younger. both to the fancy one described in the story and the one up the side of the hill from the church. that one was so cool with creepy crypt and vines hanging from every tree. i’m going back to both come springtime. cant wait!

  • Heather Belfiore January 30, 2011, 7:35 pm

    LOL! My Dad Larry was the Foreman there for many years……I remember going there with my Mom to bring him his lunch. Me and my sister used to chase the bunnies around. I do remember one incident that sticks in my mind to this day. I was playing near a mausoleum and leaned up against the door. The door flew open. I ran so fast, crying to my mom and dad. I was never so scared in my life. My Mom and Dad were laughing. I think I was like 10 years old.

  • Jennifer Sappell July 12, 2011, 12:44 pm

    The photo of the chapel is unfamiliar. The Church looks very different from this photo; there is a steeple. Where is this chapel?

    Some of the inscriptions are fascinating. Located very near a well maintained nature trail around the pond, this is a lovely place to visit. A step back in time.

  • bonnie mckeggie March 1, 2012, 7:33 pm

    my son had an experience at this church..i was wondering if anyone else ever reported anything similar..it is so powerful of a sighting that he has never forgotten it in all these years..this was aproxamatly 15 years ago.. he and his friend were sitting near the church and saw almost a comical demonic creature crawl out of the church cellar window..horns, tail etc..not large… actually similar in size to a 4 year old..it grinned at them and took off into the grave yard..they of coarse ran like hell to their car..stunned they asked each other if they saw what the other one saw..they were corageous enough trudge back to the church and look around..they saw nothing else..we were reminising and i thought i would share the story

    • gothiccurios March 1, 2012, 7:41 pm

      I can believe that, as it’s certainly a creepy, albeit beautiful place. What would be suspicious though is if both of their stories about what they saw matched exactly. Eyewitness are notorious for seeing at least slightly different things. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jess August 24, 2012, 8:55 pm

    I had no idea about all this information! I volunteered at Planting Fields for 2 summers many years ago, when they had the children’s program in effect, but I had no idea this cemetery was designed by the Olmsteads! I have a feeling I’ve seen this driving on the road & tried to figure out how to get in there. I live near the Quaker Meeting House cemetery in Bethpage and really enjoy hanging out (in the daytime) in cemeteries, checking out dates on the stones. This is going to make a great field trip for the kiddies! 🙂

  • John Johnson September 27, 2014, 8:51 pm

    How do you find out if someone you know is buried there.
    Thanks JJ

  • Karen Morton November 21, 2015, 5:15 pm

    Looking for a burial site for Frank M Morton born January 16, 1859. Is he perhaps buried there? His Son and grandson are – Elliot Morton and Donald Morton.

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