For many genealogists, the most tangible evidence they will ever find of their ancestors is a headstone. They are both a marker to designate where a body was interred, and a lasting memorial to a person who otherwise may have left no other mark. It is a magical moment when you kneel in front of the headstone of someone who has long since left this earth, reading the inscription and touching something that was touched by other ancestors that grieved over their lost loved ones. Many families cared for these plots lovingly until they passed away and the burials were long forgotten.
Finding the headstone of an ancestor is easier than ever thanks to sites such as www.findagrave.com. So easy in fact, that I rejoiced when I discovered the location of my 6 x great-grandparents, James Martin and Ruth Dunham Martin’s burials in Piscatawaytown Burial Ground in Edison, New Jersey. Only 30 minutes from New York, it was an easy trip to Edison to find the graves.
Piscatawaytown Burial Ground has a fascinating history. The oldest headstone in the cemetery dates to 1693, a memorial to two young boys buried together in one coffin. They had both died from eating poisonous mushrooms.
Also buried in Piscatawaytown Burial Ground is Mary Moore, convicted of witchcraft and executed. Legend has it that a boy in the 1950s stole her headstone from the cemetery and was shortly afterwards killed while crossing the road. Other’s attribute the “Bloody Mary” games that children sometimes play to Mary Moore, while other’s believe it refers to Mary Queen of Scotts.
In 1776 and 1777 the British army used the Burial Ground for their camp and the adjacent church as their barracks and hospital. Ruth Dunham and several generations of her family were resting six feet under the British troops. Her father Jonathan Dunham was a well-known pastor whose home was plundered by the British during this time, a few weeks later Jonathan died.
I arrived with my camera and all the excitement of a genealogist about to “meet” her long-lost ancestors, a fascinating family that had suffered great losses at the hands of the British. I anticipated a treasured cemetery, carefully manicured and preserved. I was instead brought to tears by the condition of the graves. Headstones toppled and broken, bushes and trees growing over the plots, and in the matter of my ancestors, animals had burrowed large holes as wide as basketballs inside the plots and I could literally peer into the graves.
My outrage was followed by the immediate question, “who is responsible for this cemetery?”. After searching online I discovered that the town of Edison was in-charge of the care of the cemetery. Clearly the town is more concerned with the affairs of the living than the care of their dead. This cemetery is a historical treasure left to wither and crumble. Graves as old as 319 years are at risk of being destroyed.
- Piscatawaytown Burials Dunham family headstones - animals have burrowed under them
- Piscatawaytown Burials Grave of Deacon Benjamin Stelle, died 6 Oct 1792 -covered by bushes and brush
- Piscatawaytown Burials Ruth Dunham, died 22 Aug 1817 - had to stomp down branches to take this photograph
- Piscatawaytown Burials Sad neglect of graves at Piscatawaytown Burial Ground - Edison, New Jersey
The reason these graves fall into disrepair is that no one is willing to take responsibility for the work and cost of maintaining them. Town officials turn their attention to more pressing tasks and before they realize it, it’s too late.
If you have come across a cemetery as badly in need of care as Piscatawaytown Burial Ground, I urge you to write to those responsible for their care. Also write to local historical societies, newspaper editors, church leaders, anyone necessary to preserve the headstones that remain. Otherwise, monuments that have lasted for three centuries could be destroyed in one generation.