SOMERVILLE, NJ - Elm Avenue wends its way through the quiet solitude of the New Cemetery on South Bridge Street, with 19th and 20th-century gravestones and massive concrete monoliths off to each side of the packed dirt pathway.
It is just one of many pathways that lead visitors to the final resting place of relatives and notable citizens of the borough, but it stands out from the others at this time of year because of the magnificent canopy of red dogwoods that overshadow the other sturdy hardwoods and mature pine trees that reflect the longevity of this historic site, which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year.
The red dogwoods were planted in the 1920s and 1930s by Susan Long and her husband, who was a doctor. The couple were founding members of the former Somerville Hospital, which expanded over the years to become Somerset Medical Center and is now the Robert Wood Johnson/Barnabas University Hospital on Rehill Avenue, according to Art Adair, longtime borough resident and community relations coordinator of the cemetery.
The couple lived on the corner of South Avenue and South Bridge Street not far from the cemetery.
“They had a beautiful garden in their backyard; they had the first koi pond I ever saw,” Adair said. “I was in grammar school and we walked home that way,’’ he added.
The couple is buried in the cemetery along Elm Avenue beneath the pink dogwoods.
The official state memorial tree is the dogwood, authorized by the state Assembly in 1951.
The official state tree of New Jersey is the red oak, as authorized by a joint state resolution signed by Governor Alfred E. Driscoll on June 13, 1950.
Over the years, some of the red dogwoods, now 80 and 90 years old, have died; the cemetery continues to replace the dead trees, with six saplings scheduled to be planted next week, according to Adair.
The New Cemetery of Somerville was founded in 1867 through the cooperative efforts of six local churches because Somerville had outgrown the space available in the old Raritan Cemetery across the road. It was designed as a Victorian garden cemetery with rustic roadways winding among a random profusion of grave markers and majestic trees.
At the time, the founding members, desiring the finest burial grounds possible, secured the design services of Ernest L. Meyer of Elizabeth, a recognized expert in rural garden cemetery planning which was then gaining popularity.
Garden cemeteries, in contrast to older cemeteries where tombstones stand in solemn rows, are laid out as landscaped parks with groves of trees and other plantings that invite calm and peaceful contemplation, according to Adair.
Its original design remains essentially unchanged and has matured into a handsome example of a Victorian cemetery with rustic roadways winding among a random profusion of grave markers and majestic trees, including dozens of mature pink dogwoods.
The 24-acre non-sectarian cemetery is the final resting place for over 20,000 people, including 2,000 war veterans; of those, 193 fought in the Civil War.
U.S. Sen. Clifford Case is buried there, along with his cousin, Clarence, who was the prosecutor in the notorious Halls-Mills murder trial.
Others include Mary Steele, the first female lawyer in New Jersey and Mary E. Gaston, the first female doctor in New Jersey; New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice James Bergen; James Leo Greenleaf, a landscape architect who designed several mansions in the Peacpack- Gladstone area and later, the Lincoln Memorial and the WWI American burial grounds in France and Belgium and world-class athlete Clifford Moore, who helped to integrate Somerville High School and New Cemetery.
The proximity of the old Raritan Cemetery on the other side of South Bridge Street led Somerville residents in the 19th century to refer to the “New Cemetery,” a name reflected in many documents in that era. The New Cemetery of Somerville became its official name in 2008 when the Trustees reorganized it as a 501 (©)(13) non-profit corporation eligible to accept tax deductible donations.
Today it is administered by a volunteer board of dedicated citizens, whose hope is to see it continue as a final resting place for cherished loved ones, according to Adair.