The Old Burying Ground
Old burying ground -- the term used for burial grounds of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries -- is located in the Cemetery’s northwest corner along Main Road. Established in 1640 by Puritans who founded Southold, it is the oldest surviving colonial cemetery in the State of New York (earlier Dutch cemeteries have been paved over or relocated). These sturdy, self-reliant settlers built a meeting house soon after they arrived. Alongside this meeting house the God-fearing settlers set aside an acre of land for their burial ground. In so doing, they were acknowledging their religious duty to bury their dead properly. They were also making clear their awareness of the era’s high mortality rate. Death could strike at any time; they needed to be prepared.
Click Here to view a Guide to the Old Burying Ground (be patient - takes a moment to load)
Click Here if you would like to make a donation to support the preservation effort of The Old Burying Ground.
The Town of Southold and the Church shared responsibility for the Cemetery until 1841. In that year the Town ceded its ownership claim to the Church. In exchange, the Church formally agreed to continue its practice of accepting for interment any resident of the Town, a policy that remains in effect today.
Not only is its Old Burying Ground the oldest surviving colonial cemetery in New York State; it is also the cemetery historians consider the richest for scholarship. The Old Burying Ground showcases gravestones carved by the best of the early stonecutters, most from New England, the widest range of any Long Island cemetery.
The work of these stonecutters constitutes a unique early American folk art that flowered in this country from about 1680 to 1810. Stones sport grim winged death’s heads and more hopeful-looking soul effigies. Such imagery, much admired by art historians, reveals the religion and attitudes of the times.
The Old Burying Ground has twenty graves dating from the 17th century, an extraordinary number. They include the oldest grave on Long Island, the box tomb of William Wells, a founder of Southold, which dates from 1671. The second-oldest gravestone on Long Island, that of Abigail Moore who died in 1682, is also to be found in the burial ground.
Adding to the riches are the burying ground’s box tombs or false crypts, which only the rich could afford (the body is buried in the ground beneath the above-ground stone structure). Box tombs are rare in any cemetery; our Old Burying Ground has nine. There are no others on the North Fork. As the resting place for Southold’s founders, the Old Burying Ground reveals wonderfully the history of our area.
Visitors are most welcome in the Old Burying Ground, whether they be genealogical researchers, scholars of graveyard art, schoolchildren, or simply the curious. They can study stones and figure out family relationships. They can reflect on the meaning of the winged death’s heads and soul effigies. Or they might savor the hand lettering, spelling, and epitaphs that remember our long-dead ancestors. But please, no rubbings – they damage these irreplaceable soft stones, made not of granite but of slate, sandstone, and marble.
Preserving the Old Burying Ground
The Old Burying Ground needs your help! It amounts to an outdoor museum of irreplaceable antiques, yet it shows the wear and tear you’d expect in slate and sandstone battered by time and weather for three centuries. Many stones are eroded, some are crumbling. A great many, if not most, need cleaning. Some snapped off at the base. A few are in pieces. Sadly, many were damaged by well-intended repairs years ago that turn out to be harmful. If we don't do our best to preserve them, they will be gone forever.
The Church is undertaking an expensive, multi-year project to repair and preserve the historic grave markers. Its Cemetery Committee last year spent nearly $50,000 on repairs, money it raised in its first-ever fundraising campaign. Some 250 stones were preserved: they were all cleaned and most had protective beds of pea gravel installed around their bases. As necessary, many were straightened and pieced together. Some stones profited from difficult technical repairs.
The committee is seeking grants—and welcomes contributions -- to help with the costs. Your donation will be put to good use in preserving this vital piece of Southold’s history. Make your check out to Southold's Old Burying Ground and send it to: First Presbyterian Church of Southold, P.O. Box 787, Southold, NY 11971. Your donations are tax deductible.
Last year’s work was the project’s second phase. In its first phase, carried out in the summer of 2014, volunteers from the Committee. That survey was directed by Joel Snodgrass, a professional architectural conservator, and Zach Studenroth, a cemetery historian. It assessed every stone and set priorities for phase two, the actual repairs.
Click Here to view a reprint of a Suffolk Times article in which Jane Andrews gives an update on the Old Burying Ground Restoration Project
Last year Mr. Snodgrass led a series of workshops to train volunteers to carry out preservation work. While he did the heavy lifting, volunteers learned to remove 300 years…..the bases of gravestones. Some volunteers learned proper techniques for righting stones that lean or have fallen over. We welcomed anyone 14 or older. This year training will be offered in a program offered jointly by the Cemetery Committee and the Southold Library. Called “How to Save A Gravestone,” the two-part program will be offered on Sunday, May 1 and Saturday, May 7. The first part of the program will be held at the Library and will feature a presentation by preservationist Joel Snodgrass. He will explain how grave markers become damaged and will describe the best ways to restore them. The program’s second part will take place in the Old Burying Ground itself on the morning of May 7. Cemetery Committee members will train interested volunteers so that they can carry out the hands-on preservation work themselves.
Become a good friend of the Old Burying Ground. If you prefer indoor work, you can exercise your organizational skills to help us with fundraising and promotion. Whatever your skills and interests, the OBG needs you!
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