Any kid whose policy it is to hold his or her breath when passing a graveyard is in for a shock. The History Center in Tompkins County estimates that there are over 200 cemeteries in Tompkins County alone, and the total number in the Finger Lakes Region is certainly over 1,000. And those are just the ones we know about.
In fact, most Finger Lakes burials are invisible. There is evidence of ritualized human burial in the Finger Lakes dating back over 5,000 years at the Lamoka archaeological site in Schuyler County, and more recently the Seneca and Cayuga nations occupied this territory for centuries, and the vast majority of their burial locations are lost to time. By the 1830s, after a couple of decades of European settlement, the Finger Lakes’ population numbered in the thousands, yet there are precious few intact graves from before that time.
Perhaps no living person knows more about the rural burying grounds of the Finger Lakes than Newfield town historian Alan Chaffee. Over the course of more than 50 years, he has personally transcribed the information from some 25,000 headstones in over 150 local cemeteries large and small. His knowledge of the location of even the most obscure family burying grounds is encyclopedic. Chaffee makes a distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ burying grounds. “Easily 95 percent of rural burials in this area before about 1850 were done on the family’s own land and not in a public cemetery,” he said.
Private rural burial customs in the early years of Finger Lakes settlement reflect both superstition and economic reality. Graves were oriented in a west-to-east direction, with the head to the west, the idea being that if the dead were able to sit up they would face the sunrise. There was no embalming before the Civil War, and there was no guarantee of a casket, especially for children. Deaths among children were depressingly common, in fact, and they were often buried next to the path from the house to the road.
“In the 19th century, death was seen much more as a part of life,” said Chaffee. “Almost everyone was born and died at home. Funerals would happen at home. People had a much more direct and intimate contact with death.”
Public burying grounds started to appear in the 1840s and 1850s, very often close to one-room schoolhouses, which did double duty for community events, including church services and funerals. Dating the beginning of many of these cemeteries is difficult as there are no written records. The headstones themselves confuse the issue, as it was not uncommon for families to disinter loved ones from private graves, sometimes decades old, and re-bury them in the new public cemetery.
There are hundreds of private family cemeteries and small public burying grounds in the Finger Lakes, but the number that a visitor can see is dwindling. Private cemeteries that have remained under the stewardship of a family or a small number of families are rare. Often, they are abandoned once relatives die off or move away. Some return to the earth, disappearing with barely a trace. Others, sometimes preserved by strangers, often overgrown and decaying and not always easy to find, are local landmarks. Occasionally, they are found by unsuspecting farmers as fields are plowed and turned.
Here in Tompkins County there is a wonderful resource on the History Center’s website – an interactive map of Tompkins County’s cemeteries. (thehistorycenter.net/maps-history-forge ). Burying grounds in various states of repair are everywhere in the Finger Lakes. There are abandoned cemeteries in the once-populated and now-abandoned areas on Connecticut Hill in Newfield and what is now the Hector National Forest. Easy pilgrimages can be made to the Goodwin Jones Pioneer Cemetery behind Taughannock Farms Inn on Gorge Road in Trumansburg, or a few miles west of Mecklenburg on Route 79 across from Bergen Road. Locals might steer you to the Old Himrod Cemetery in Yates County, the VanVleet Farm Cemetery in Sampson State Park or the Quaker-Friends Cemetery off Mecklenburg Road in Hector. Or, you might see five 160-year-old graves in someone’s yard as you pass through the heart of the Village of Tyrone in Schuyler County.
They’re worth tracking down. “It’s important to remember that these stones represent real people, with dreams and feelings, triumphs and defeats,” said Chaffee. In a sense, given the slowly-changing landscape of the Finger Lakes, visiting a small rural cemetery is like visiting those people in the surroundings in which they lived. §