Southold library offers tours of New York’s oldest English cemetery

cemetery tour Southold’s Old Burying Ground

Photo by Rachel Young | Melissa Andruski, Southold Free Library’s adult program coordinator, next to the tomb of Ezra L’Hommedieu, an 18th-century adviser to George Washington.

If you’re in the mood for a guided tour that blends Southold history with just a hint of the macabre, Southold Free Library’s sunset cemetery visits are just the ticket.

Led by Melissa Andruski, the library’s adult program coordinator, the cemetery visits offer the public the opportunity to explore Southold’s Old Burying Ground, the site of a 17th-century English burial ground — the oldest in the state.

“I’ve gone by the cemetery many times, and a couple times I’ve just wandered through it,” said Thomas Ekkers, who lives in Arizona but has a summer home in Southold. Mr. Ekkers was among about a dozen people who attended an Aug. 14 tour given by Ms. Andruski, who began leading the tours in 2005, two years after a former colleague launched the program.

Sporadically scheduled throughout the year, the free program also gives people the chance to learn more about the many notables interred in the 16 rows of slate, marble and sandstone graves at the cemetery, which is adjacent to First Presbyterian Church of Southold on Main Road. One of those people is the Rev. John Youngs, who organized the Puritan settlement of Southold in 1640. Another is Ezra L’Hommedieu, a lawyer and statesman who once advised George Washington.

cemetery tour Southold’s Old Burying Ground

Photo by Rachel Young | The Founder’s Monument at Southold’s Old Burying Ground is dedicated to the Rev. John Youngs, who led the group that settled Southold in 1640.

The oldest marked gravestone at the cemetery dates back to 1658 and belongs to Helena Under-hill, about whom little is known. The youngest person buried there is Esther Bayley, who died in 1767 at 2 months old.

“There are, of course, people who have been buried here since 1640, when the village of Southold was founded, but their graves are unmarked,” Ms. Andruski said.

She noted that only people of English descent are interred in the Old Burying Ground — an important distinction, since Native American tribes lived for thousands of years in what is now Southold and Dutch colonists also had a 17th century presence on the North Fork.

Many of the gravestones at the Old Burying Ground carry interesting etchings, like an 18th-century slate stone depicting a skull with raised wings. Primitive examples of soul effigies, which resemble sad faces, have been cut into two of the tombs. Some stones contain ominous-sounding epitaphs, like that of Jeremiah Toppings, a 27-year-old buried in row four of the cemetery.

cemetery tour Southold’s Old Burying Ground

Photo by Rachel Young | An 18th-century gravestone etched with a stylized skull.

His stone reads: “Ye blooming youth who read my date and shed your wonderful tears; remember you may share my fate and die in early years.”

As can be expected, numerous graves are in disrepair. Some stones contain cracks filled in with white glue, the work of an unknown repair person. The cemetery’s sandstone graves are arguably in the worst shape due to the nature of that particular rock, which begins to disintegrate over time. Many of the sandstone graves are also covered in lichen, a fungus.

While exploring the cemetery on the most recent tour, Art and Melissa Beisel of Mattituck said they were intrigued by its long history. The cemetery is a special place for the Beisels, who left Long Island for northern Virginia 30 years ago but recently moved to the North Fork. While doing genealogical research last year, the pair found out that Ms. Beisel’s ninth great-grandfather, Thomas Brush, is interred at the Old Burying Ground.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said. “I guess the North Fork is where I belong.”

One Comment

  • I love the history the Southold cemetery holds, and sad to have missed Melissa’s tour last month! I share the Beisel’s feeling that North Fork is where they belong, though I’ve never lived there. I live on the west coast, but have visited many times since 1999. My ninth great-grandfather, Barnabas Horton, is buried in the cemetery, and I imagine my ninth great-grandmother, Mary Langton Horton, is too – though her grave must either be unmarked or her headstone long ago fallen in disrepair. Enjoyed the post and the pics! Can’t wait to come back for a visit!