The cemetery at First Presbyterian Church of Southold has some of the oldest graves in the country, with a few dating all the way back to 1640 when the first European settlers came into town.
As might be expected, with burials taking place there for nearly four centuries, space has become an issue. With no land available for expansion, the church has found a way to make better use of what it has.
The church recently opened its new memorial garden, a place for cremated remains. The project has been in the works for many years.
Dr. John Campbell, a longtime family physician in Southold, and his wife, Virginia, donated money for the garden’s construction when it became clear to parishioners the cemetery was running out of room.
Although Dr. Campbell passed away in 2001, his wife continued to donate to the cause. In 2010, when the necessary funds were raised, the church sought design ideas for a memorial garden.
Ms. Campbell and the church cemetery committee were unanimous in selecting the design submitted by Southold landscape architect Loren Fitzsimons. The plan was inspired by Andre LeNotre’s design for the gardens at Versailles and employs the Christian symbols of crosses and circles.
The memorial garden is in the shape of a cross with a circular fountain the center. Carefully groomed flowerbeds line the top and bottom part of the cross, with two stone structures called columbaria on the horizontal arms. Each columbarium has 64 niches to hold urns of cremated remains.
“It’s nice because it looks complete, but it can still be added to,” cemetery committee member John Nickles said.
The columbaria are made of black granite and are designed to reflect the cemetery’s older and newer sections. The older part, called the monument, holds larger gravestones while the newer section, known as the memorial, has ground-level markers.
At the June 27 dedication ceremony, Southold Town historian Antonia Booth said the cemetery is the oldest for English speakers in New York State.
“I think it’s gorgeous and it fits with the rural sense of the existing cemetery,” Pastor Peter Kelley said during the dedication. “It’s a fitting symbol for those who will come after us. Hopefully they will appreciate what we did for them as we have appreciated what those before us did for us.”
The memorial garden is more than just a burial place, said the Rev. Kelley, it speaks to historical continuity.
“Almost 375 years ago settlers came here and the first thing that they did was bury their dead,” he said in his blessing. “Just like they did years before us, we want to allow those who come after us the same gift and privilege of mourning.”
The memorial garden will be available to all Southold residents, just as the cemetery has been.