October 31, 2013

Old graveyards dying out?


---- — WESTPORT — Tumbled tombstones and monuments, sinkholes, erosion and out-of-control plant growth are among the problems facing Hillside and Black River cemeteries here.

“We have a problem that the bank at the edge of the cemetery (Hillside) that goes down to Hoisington Brook has slid in the past,” Westport Cemetery Association President Juanita Napper said. “If we get a bunch of water, it might cause it to happen again.”

Her great-grandparents are buried there, as are early settlers and veterans, among them Ebenezer Durfie, who fought during the American Revolution.

There are also monuments to those not buried there, including Capt. Jacob Halstead and his brother, George, who perished in 1825 with the rest of their crew when the schooner Troy went down in a gale on Lake Champlain.


While old large trees add ambiance and shade to a graveyard, they can cause considerable damage due to branches falling on the tombstones, as well as the roots causing the ground to swell and toppling the stones.  

“There’s really not a level spot in the cemetery, so another of my big concerns is the base of the large stones tilting,” Napper said. 

“Most of these stones are set by the weight holding them in place, so when the base isn’t level, the stones start to slide. The only way to repair them before they fall is to take the top down, cement them and put them back up.  

“These stones are very heavy,” she said.

This issue is compounded by the fact that the ground is soft in many places, so using heavy equipment is not always possible.

Depressions appear from time to time, as the old caskets were made of wood. When they rot, the ground caves in to fill the spaces.

“Erwin Barber gave us some gravel from his pit to fill in some of these holes,” Napper said, “and the prisoners (work crew) from Moriah came, so things are in a lot better shape.”


Hillside Cemetery is considered full, except for spaces in family plots, so burials in Westport are now relegated to Black River Cemetery just east of the Elizabethtown-Westport line on Route 9N.  

A regular expenditure of both is mowing the grass, which generally takes two days. Napper is appreciative of Larry Bashaw, who hasn’t changed his price in several years, though the cost of gas has risen. 

Assistance has come from Westport Central School, which adopted the cemetery during its annual town cleanup day.

“The town has been very good about loaning us equipment such as weed-eaters,” Napper said.


Those who honor the dead at the cemeteries sometimes, without meaning to, create problems, she said.

“Planting trees and other vegetation like vines is not a good thing for cemeteries,” cautioned Napper. “We also have had to deal with people throwing old plastic wreaths, flowers and pots over the banks. 

“But people have become more aware of that.”

Others perpetrate mayhem.

At one time, cemeteries provided a place for activities, as they were generally a grassy plot next to a church where parishioners had Sunday picnics and paid their respects to ancestors. 

So-called recreation in cemeteries today often involves late-night parties, camping, the knocking over of tombstones, and, as happened in Black River, shooting at birds perched on tombstones. 

Signs now restrict visiting hours to daytime and also say: “No Trespassing, Hunting, Shooting, Camping, Parties, Etc.” 

While the association has to maintain the cemeteries, funds to do that have dwindled as numerous families of those buried there no longer live in the area and may not even be aware of their ancestors’ interment. 

“We do have a list, so we can send out a mailing,” said Napper.

“We recently received a nice endorsement of $25,000 from an estate,” she added. “However, if there are major expenses, the money won’t last long. 

“We were really getting depleted, and then we got the endowment.” 

As for the future, Napper said, “the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) has some grants, so we’re hoping to do something with them. 

“There is also money that can possibly be obtained from the New York State Division of Cemeteries.”

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