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May 26, 2009 6:20 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

A call to protect the dead

May 26, 2009 6:20 PM

There are 31 small graveyards scattered across East Hampton Town, some with just a headstone or two marking the passing of the lives of the town’s early residents. Until recently, the only way to find them was to ask the town for a list that contained mysterious directions such as “the graves are behind Bob’s house.”

“It used to be such a small town” that finding the graves with those directions was easy, said Eileen Catalano, a member of the town’s nature preserves committee who recently finished a report on the condition of the cemeteries that was commissioned by Town Board member Brad Loewen in 2007.

During the course of her research, Ms. Catalano discovered everything from a missing grave belonging to “Ned, the Faithful Negro Manservent to Capt. Jeramiah Osborn” that should have stood where an asphalt-covered backyard is now, to the grave of New Yorker cover artist Saul Steinberg, who was secretly buried next to his girlfriend, Sigrid Spaeth, down a wooded path behind his home in Springs.

When the Town Board accepted Ms. Catalano’s report earlier this month, Mr. Loewen issued a plea to start an “East Hampton Committee to save Ned” after learning of the mystery surrounding his grave.

According to Ms. Catalano, neighbors in the small community on Morris Park in Springs remember that a former owner had sold the property that contained Ned’s grave because they believed they could not build on a cemetery, but the next owner of the house removed the headstone and built a cement patio in the backyard over the grave.

“His grave is now the foundation for a driveway,” said Mr. Loewen. “This man deserves more than that. We need to provide him with another grave and give him the honor that he is due.”

Mr. Loewen has agreed to coordinate any volunteers who want to help memorialize Ned.

But the condition of Ned’s grave is just one of many problems facing a town that has never had a proper management plan for dealing with the dead. That’s the kind of plan that Ms. Catalano’s report was designed to begin.

For one, the AME Zion Cemetery on Eastville Avenue in Sag Harbor has no fence surrounding it, and neighbors’ swing sets and backyards have begun to encroach on the rows of crumbling tombstones. Elsewhere, cedar trees have sprung up through the center of old graves.

Several decades ago, the town surrounded all of its known small cemeteries with white split-rail fences, which can be seen from a distance, long before the graves are apparent, as one approaches grave sites through the woods in the quieter parts of town.

But many of those fences are beginning to crumble, particularly in graveyards in Springs, where 23 of East Hampton’s small cemeteries are located.

On a recent foggy spring morning, Ms. Catalano took a walk through a few of the more accessible graveyards—many are on private property, which makes them both difficult to visit and difficult to maintain. Attorney Richard Whalen is working with Ms. Catalano on a report on the legal issues associated with the graves, and whether they will require easements or other methods of ensuring that they are not disturbed.

Currently, said Ms. Catalano, East Hampton Town has no law on the books that makes it illegal to desecrate or remove cemeteries, making the state of these small hidden graveyards even more tenuous.

“They lived a long time,” said Ms. Catalano, as she walked through the peeling gate of a cemetery belonging to Daniel and Mehetable Edwards and two other women just off Old Stone Highway. “This one’s 82, 69. I guess farming and drinking was good for them.”

The same thing was the case with the Hedges/Parsons cemetery not far down the street, which sits inconspicuously behind a sign advertising the services of a real estate broker, who lives behind the cemetery.

A peeling picket fence held up by heavy granite posts encircles 12 graves belonging to members of the Hedges, Parsons and Foster families. Raspberry shoots were beginning their seasonal work of covering the mossy ground with prickly stalks. Ms. Catalano’s plan asks that those vines be kept under control, and that the granite posts be allowed to remain.

“Look at these epitaphs,” she said. “‘She being possessed naturally of a kinder heart.’ This one’s 88. They’re all oldies! It’s fabulous.”

“I feel really strongly about the history of the town and maintaining it.”

Ms. Catalano said that she hopes soon to be able to embark on a study of un-recorded Native American grave sites in Montauk, but added that it is a subject that many people don’t want to talk about, because of the land use implications if burial grounds are found on their land. She is urging anyone with information about Montauk grave sites to contact her.

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Nice reporting and kudos to Ms. Catalano for her important work. As Elie Wiesel said:

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.
By Laszlo Lowenstein (37), East Hampton on May 27, 09 1:12 PM
does anyone know how to contact ms. catalano?i have some usefull info for her regarding this issue and there is more like 45 small graveyards not 31
By pinga (90), hamptonbays on May 27, 09 8:22 PM
I am curious as to where these are. I am looking for one in particular. I was told there is one in a field in noyac somewhere. If someone knows please let me know where to find them.
By local414 (10), southampton on May 27, 09 10:45 PM
Thank you Ms. Catalano for all your efforts. There are a lot of these small graveyards out here - many with just a single person buried in them. Many farmers just buried their hired help in the back yard. local414 - There used to be one south of Trout Pond - don't know if it is still there. The problem is once it gets out where they are & if they are in a secluded spot, then vandals get to them. Then once the stones (if they ever had them) go missing, folks forget & they end up being paved ...more
By Ms. Jane Q. Public (147), Southampton on May 28, 09 10:25 AM
There was a grave in Mortons Refufe and out on Jessups neck too. I did notice the first one's stone is missing as is the little fence that was once around it. Noyac had grave sites as the early families like the Jessups did just bury the dead on their own property. I grew up in Noyac and know every inch of that land. Would be nice to see the history mapped.
By squeaky (291), hampton bays on May 28, 09 12:54 PM
I also recall the one out in Morton. Maybe when Ms. Catalano is done with East Hampton, we can convince her to do the same thing in Southampton Town??? Or we can do what North Haven did - just dig everyone up & send them out-of-state.
By Ms. Jane Q. Public (147), Southampton on May 28, 09 2:15 PM
Thanks Eileen for your tireless work on the behalf of our community! Documenting and preserving these sites are very important. Congratulations on a job well done.
By BAB (7), Amagansett on May 29, 09 6:50 PM