WESTFIELD, NJ — Conservation efforts of the historical burial ground across from the Presbyterian Church of Westfield on Mountain Avenue are in the final stages.
Multi-phased fundraising efforts by the church made it possible to perform maintenance on one of Westfield’s most historically significant landmarks, said Dave Rogers, co-chair of the Cemetery Committee at the Presbyterian Church of Westfield.
"While recognized as a National Historic Place, the Burial Grounds is noteworthy as the actual resting place of Westfield's founders, earliest residents, leaders and many who fought for our freedom,” Rogers said.
The original church, a log cabin that was once on Benson Place, dates back to 1728. However, it is not quite clear when the land for the cemetery was acquired. Rogers said that the property was originally owned by the Miller and Cory families of Westfield. In fact, the first recorded burial on the grounds is that of a child, Noah Miller, from 1737, he said.
The cemetery is organized into five sections, with each section steeped in historical significance. Rogers pointed out that each stone faces east, a tradition that assured that the front of the stone was in the morning sun, he said.
The front two sections of the cemetery host some of the founding families of Westfield, including the Scudders, Millers and Corys, along with many of the ministers of the church.
Looking to the back sections, visitors will notice that some of the grave sites have two markers. According to Rogers, after the Civil War, the federal government allowed families to petition for a stone marker to place on the grave site of anyone who fought for the U.S. cause.
“This acknowledged that the person fought in the war, their regiment and rank, you won’t see that on the brownstone from family,” he said. "The ones that the government issues are like the ones in Arlington Cemetery."
The fifth and final section was developed in the late 20th century. This section is still actively used and exclusively dedicated to cremains for church members and “one generation plus or minus” (a parent or a child of a church member).
While the burial grounds were reasonably maintained until the 1970s, Rogers said that it was around this time that church members decided to take on the larger project of cleaning it up entirely.
The group removed overgrowth and tried to organize some of the displaced markers and stones.
“During the 1970s, flat, small or misplaced stones were stacked up against the fence. Some have initials, some have no carving,” said Rogers.
When the late Westfield resident Lee Hale interned his wife’s ashes at the cemetery in 2007, he felt that the conservation efforts had fallen short and decided to partner with Rogers in an effort to overhaul the burial ground once more.
“He felt that we needed to revitalize the cemetery and address some of the stones and attend to the fence,” said Rogers.
Rogers' and Hale’s fundraising efforts exceeded their $100,000 goal. Instead they collected $110,000 to put toward the revitalization.
“We were able to replace some of the unsightly chain link fence, put in a wall around the cremains area. It’s a columbarium, similar to what is seen in Fairview Cemetery,” he said. “But we were still not satisfied that we did all that we could.”
Rogers said that a second fundraiser raised $95,000 and it is with these funds that the church has continued the conservation efforts of some of the sections, including the treatment of the gravestones themselves to prevent biological growth.
The church hired Philadelphia area conservation firm Materials Conservation Co., LLC. The burial grounds project in Westfield is being led by Marco Federico.
"They did all the work in the burial grounds and all of the work to restore the cemetery for the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth," said Rogers, who felt that their resume made them a strong candidate for the job. "Marco and the group are extremely professional stone conservators.”
In a separate conservation effort, Eagle Scout candidate George Burke of Westfield is trying to identify where many of those displaced stones belong, said Rogers.
“He’s cross-checking church records to determine and identify where it belongs. It's very definitive,” Rogers said, adding that while the task might be long, records along with engravings on the stones make this goal a realistic one.
Rogers hopes to continue conservation efforts for the burial grounds, which includes attempts at trying to maintain the appearance of the era.
“We keep the grass longer like it would have been in colonial times,” he said, explaining that the community would have relied on sheep for lawn care.
"We are trying to put together a project to do a composite history of the cemetery,” Rogers said .
Rogers also mentioned that there are often opportunities for Boy Scout troops and Eagle Scout candidates to collaborate with the church.
He, along with other members of the church, are planning to attend an upcoming event in Elizabeth with Federico, who has offered to do a training program on how to take care of the stones.
Tours of the burial grounds are open to the public. Rogers recommends contacting the Presbyterian Church of Westfield at 908-233-0301 prior to visiting and also says that the church is willing to assist in finding specific information. Guided tours are available upon request.