Ball field space may be tight on the East End, but in Southampton Town, until today, anyone looking to play a ball game could legally have just headed over to a local town-owned graveyard to practice their soccer footwork or dribble a basketball between the tombstones.
Town Historian Zachary Studenroth, who chairs Southampton’s Historical Burying Ground Committee, is dead set on changing the section of the town’s law where graveyards are considered “park recreation facilities.”
The living aren’t doing anything interesting today, Aug. 13, so the Southampton Town Board will hold a public hearing on the proposal to have graveyards no longer considered park recreation facilities. They plan to go one step further by banning domestic animals; litter; defacement; games including football, soccer, baseball, kickball, frisbee, and softball; Halloween walks and gravestone rubbing at historic graveyards, and to ban people from hanging out in graveyards between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., arguably the most pleasant times of day to commune with one’s dead relatives.
“It seemed very inappropriate for us to be defining historic burying grounds as park recreation facilities in which various appropriate behaviors such as soccer balls and baseball games can take place lawfully and appropriately,” said Mr. Studenroth at a recent town board meeting.
For more on the potential impact of this proposed rule, we turn to Beacon summer interns and reformed goth girls Avenue and Viola Smith, who brought a soccer ball with them this morning to visit Pleasure Woods, a town-owned historic graveyard in severe disrepair perched on a hill in the middle of a new subdivision near their home in Flanders.
“I don’t think I would play soccer in a graveyard. You could hit the gravestones with a ball,” said Avenue, 12, who is going into eighth grade at Riverhead Middle School, on the way to the cemetery.
“I don’t really spend time in graveyards,” said Viola, 10, who is going into fifth grade at Pulaski Street School. “Not even on Halloween. What I like about Halloween is candy. There’s no candy in graveyards. Unless they put it in piñatas and hang them above the graveyard and then it all falls down.
“I find that highly unlikely,” said Avenue.
“We had a picnic in a graveyard once, I think, but it was my mom’s idea,” she added.
After climbing the hill to the graveyard with their ball, the girls looked around. Viola refused to take more than two steps toward the center of the graveyard. She pointed at the ground.
“I’m not going to walk on bodies,” she said, her voice trembling.
“I really don’t feel comfortable here,” said her older sister. “Let’s go.”
Pleasure Woods is one of the ten most sensitive graveyards owned by Southampton, not because the people buried in it are sensitive about ball games, but because the stones are in very bad shape.
New York State law requires that towns take care of old cemeteries once they’ve been abandoned for 14 years, and the state has a pool of money it uses to encourage towns to step up and accept responsibility, said Mr. Studenroth at Southampton’s July 9 meeting. Many of those cemeteries were originally family plots whose stones began to crumble when more members of the family were under the ground than were above it, or when families moved away, or when they just got mad when the government decided to outlaw burying their own on their own property.
The Pleasure Woods Cemetery, which has just eight headstones, was NOT the burying ground for the bordello that gave neighboring Pleasure Drive its name, but was once the private burial plot of the Havens family of Flanders.
“Only eight headstones survive within the small wood fenced enclosure, one of which was a small marble obelisk now sadly broken into many pieces. The earliest of the stones are those of Mary Havens (1822) and Walter Havens (1840), while the others have become illegible,” says Mr. Studenroth in a well-documented database of town-owned graveyards on Southampton’s website. “The Pleasure Woods Cemetery is typical of the small privately owned burial plots that were favored by isolated families in the 18th and 19th centuries but eventually outlawed by the authorities. The site illustrates how destructive falling tree limbs can be to the fragile gravestones that survive beneath them.”
Southampton’s elected officials have strong words for nature and time, which are conspired to lay ruin to East End graveyards.
“We don’t ever want to see them lost,” Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst told Mr. Studenroth of the graveyards at the July 9 town board meeting.
Mr. Studenroth has been on a mission for nearly a decade to document and help restore Southampton Town’s crumbling graveyards, and there are few people more dedicated to the task on the whole East End.
If you think Southampton’s cemetery restrictions are too grave, there are plenty of interesting graveyards in other East End towns that you can visit in the wee hours.
Tiny family plots, surrounded by small white wooden fences, abound in East Hampton, where they are also sort-of cared for by the town.
Graveyards owned by churches, whose concern for the human spirit appears to transcend the government’s level of concern, appear to have fared much better in the battle with time and nature.
Over in Southold, the graveyard beside the First Presbyterian Church of Southold is so full that the church is now pushing people to try its new crematory garden, where you can have your remains honored without taking up as much space as your ancestors, amid nice blooming perennial flowers, which are so named because they never seem to die after the cold of winter. Lucky flowers. Recreation activities permitted in memorial gardens range from smelling the flowers to sitting on benches.
Southold’s founding fathers Barnabas Horton and John Youngs have been buried in the Presbyterian Church’s garden since before the church was Presbyterian. They’re buried not far from each other, where if you listen late at night, you can still hear them planning what Southold will look like for decades into the future.