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

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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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