The bodies of the 17th- and early 18th-century Puritans and others in Southold’s Old Burying Ground stretch east from the tombstones, even though the inscriptions face west.
“The idea was that on judgement day they could sit up and greet Christ, whom they believed would be coming from the east,” explained Jane Andrews, a First Presbyterian Church member.
While not exactly Christ, a team of redeemers will soon descend on the graveyard to kick off a five-year effort to restore the Main Road site — originally called “God’s Acre” in 1640 — to its former glory.
The church’s cemetery committee has already approved spending $45,000 this summer and fall on repairs and preservation efforts, and hopes to address 50 to 70 of the old stones. The church will also be seeking grants to fund the project.
But the biggest challenge, those involved say, is recruiting and training that team of volunteers to repair cracks, remove unsightly caulking and shore up felled stones, among other tasks that need to be performed at what is considered New York’s oldest colonial cemetery.
“We need volunteers of all levels of ability,” Ms. Andrews stressed. “And it all depends on how much help we get.”
To that end, the first of a planned 10 training workshops for volunteers will be held at the site Saturday, June 6, at 9 a.m.
This all follows a survey of 754 grave markers that was conducted last year from church committee members. The Old Burying Ground is part of the cemetery owned by the church and dates to the town’s founding. Today, the cemetery spans about eight acres and is still active for town residents who wish to be interred there.
Among the grave markers that can be found at the site is the box tomb of Barnabas Horton (1680), who helped found the town; Helena Underhill (1658), who is buried under the oldest marked grave on the property; and Ezra L’Hommedieu (1811), a descendent of French Huguenots who is considered to be the most influential man in the town’s history.
According to a cemetery pamphlet and other resources, Mr. L’Hommedieu was taught by Native Americans how to make quality fertilizer (a skill he later passed on to fellow European settlers), delivered ammunition and supplies to the eastern Suffolk County militia and served as a state senator and representative from New York to the Continental Congress.
At the cemetery, there are also three stones marking the graves of slaves, such as that along the property line near Main Road for woman named Bloom.
As the story goes, Bloom was found deaf and mute on a Southold beach in 1808 soon after a British ship fired a cannon into a shorefront house. Abrahama Mulford took her into his home and cared for her until she died two years later.
Also of great interest to visitors of the Old Burying Ground in Southold — not to be confused with the Old Burying Ground in Cutchogue, where restoration began last year — are the carved death’s head — typically skulls with wings — and, later, cheerier soul effigies that mark the tops of many of the stones.
“The death’s heads, frightening skulls with sunken eyes and sometimes bared teeth, symbolize life’s impermanence — its insignificance compared to life and death,” the pamphlet reads.
“With Puritans, everything was about death,” said Melissa Andruski of Southold Free Library, who runs tours of the graveyard. “Death was central to their way of living. Everything was about preparing for death, which is kind of gloomy, I suppose. They believed your fate, whatever that was, is already determined and there was nothing you could do to change it. Hence, the winged death’s heads. Then over time, the soul effigies come into being, so we’re kind of letting go here and being a bit optimistic.”
Ms. Andrews’ favorite headstones at the Old Burying Ground mark the graves of a brother and sister who both died in 1717. Samuel Hutchinson was 16 and Martha Hutchinson was just 9. Death’s head symbols are carved toward the top of each stone, though the wings of the death’s head above Samuel’s marker forms a heart, which Ms. Andrews said is a “juxtaposition of life and death.”
Ms. Andrews has a theory about the mood of the carver who etched the stones for the siblings, who might have died from the same disease. “Maybe the carver was of mixed minds,” she said. “And he just couldn’t bear to use the traditional, grim imagery.”