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‘Everyone Should Have A Stone’: Volunteers Care for Burial Grounds, Headstones

‘Everyone Should Have A Stone’: Volunteers Care for Burial Grounds, Headstones

As visitors enter the Eastside Cemetery through a heavy iron gate on Pease Road, they leave the busy hum of modern life behind.  Continue down the gentle slope of the access road, the dates marked on the headstones become older, the stones themselves often leaning one way or the other, some are illegible.  Many of the names on the headstones have a familiar ring:  the Pecks, the Hitchcocks, even Benjamin Woodbridge himself, the first pastor of the Congregational Church, after whom the town was named.  Old trees spread their branches protectively over memorial stones, attacked by lichen and mold.

Todd Sasso, the superintendent of the cemetery, was drawn to this place after he learned that his mother’s forebears, the Allings, were buried here.  While living in New Britain, he came to Woodbridge to find out more about his ancestors.  In 2012, he found a house in Woodbridge, and he moved closer to where his forebears are buried, and never left.  “I love this place,” he said simply.

When a group of local history buffs worked on the second edition of “Historic Woodbridge,” Sasso participated as well.  His knowledge of the local family connections earned him a spot on the Eastside Burial Ground Association Board of Directors.  As such, he has taken on a caretaker role, and along with a handful of other volunteers, has been actively involved in restoring broken down stones and more.

“Todd Sasso, our Superintendent of the Cemetery, has been repairing broken iron fencing, putting in 23 new replacement stones for older graves that have been lost or broken.  [He and John Nolan] have also repaired 20 stones that have broken over the years,” said Stephanie Ciarleglio, a member of the board.

Sasso is not the only one volunteering his time and treasure.

The day we went to visit the cemetery, a tree trimming crew was out, cutting tree branches and hauling away those that winter storms had left in a limbo.  Chris Sorensen, who runs a local farm and during the school year drives a school bus, has been maintaining the property for the last few years, trimming and removing old or dead trees, maintaining the lawns and roads.  “Much of this work has been done at no charge and has just made our cemetery even nicer,” Ciarleglio said.

Other than the old trees, you don’t see many grave decorations.  “Nothing much grows there,” said Sheila McCreven, president of the association that owns and maintains the cemetery.  She remembered how a few years ago the whole board planted hundreds of daffodils.  “None of them came up,” she said, “nothing.”

John Nolan, owner of Hamden Monument, also lends a lot of his time and expertise repairing the old stones.  He has mended several old tablets by gluing them with a special epoxy, and has cleaned them and in some cases re-created the engravings.  Where the original stone was so far gone that it could not be revived, they added a new stone to the face of the old one, thus leaving the old stone in place.  Some old stones went missing altogether, but with the help of historic records they could find out who was buried there.

“We all feel everybody should have a stone,” Nolan said was the shared feeling of those serving on the board.

Some of the replacement stones are simple, arched bluestones with the letters accented with darker paint.  Others are smaller footstones set into the grass.  Sasso, who works in construction, saved some discarded bluestone from a construction site in Bridgeport for replacement stones.

“Todd replaced some family members’ stones,” said Nolan.  “Then we just continued with it.”  The oldest local gravesite of the Alling family is that of Samuel Alling, who died April 4, 1788; his wife Kezia, and daughter Kezia, who died in 1765 at age 17.

Veterans’ graves:  In addition to the stones, Sasso also donated markers for veterans of the early wars.  He found seven original Revolutionary War markers at Eastside Cemetery, as well as Civil War markers.  He cleaned them by sand blasting, then applying a fresh coat of paint; and finally setting them into a concrete base.

A local Boy Scout, Jason Luciani, has devoted his Eagle Scout project to locating veterans’ graves from 1917 on.  He also made maps of the location of veterans’ graves in each of Woodbridge’s three cemeteries, maps which will be displayed at their respective cemetery.  Sheila McCreven said a ceremony unveiling his work is planned for later this spring.

To replace missing stones, Sasso found a rich source of information in the Charles R. Hale Collection of Connecticut Cemetery Inscriptions, which lists headstone inscriptions in over 2,000 Connecticut cemeteries.  Compiled in the early 1930s, this was a WPA project directed by Charles R. Hale.

History of the Eastside Burying Ground:  The cemetery was started by Nathaniel Sperry, Sheila McCreven’s seventh-great grandfather.  He left it in the 1750s to the Congregational Church, which at that time was also the meeting house, and constituted the government.  When the Constitution separated church from state, the cemetery was placed into the care of an association, and has become non-sectarian.  Serving on the board are Sheila McCreven, chair; Stephanie Ciarleglio, Todd Sasso, Chris Sorenson, Bill Stoddard and Susan Stoddard, Martha Graham, Mary Ehrler, John Nolan and Beth Heller.

Its 17 acres still offer ample of space to accommodate people for the next 100 years, Sasso said.  Plots are about $1,000, with room for two to four urns in the case of cremations.  Plots are sold in perpetuity.

Other than the Eastside Cemetery, which is the largest and oldest of the Woodbridge cemeteries, the town has two others, Milfordside off of Racebrook Road, which is privately owned by the Baldwin Family; and the town-owned Northwest Cemetery at the corner of Peck Hill and Seymour roads.

by Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent

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