NISKAYUNA- Most of the time, death divides. But during a cemetery tour of the Niskayuna Reformed Church it brought people together from all across New England.
On October 1, Scott Haefner, along with a few other volunteers, took tour groups of about ten people around the church’s cemetery to talk history- on a national and local level.
“There are about 2,400 plots here, which means there are that many stories to tell,” Haefner said.
As a historian, this sort of well-researched story telling came as second nature to Haefner.
But the push for the Niskayuna Reformed Church to look into and celebrate its history came earlier this year when a group of volunteers were cleaning out the parish in preparation for a new pastor.
“We found this ledger from over 100 years ago and it held the pastor’s wife’s notes of what went on with the youth group,” said Diane Pechulis, a volunteer and church member.
The church also has filing cabinets full of old documents of those who have plots in the cemetery.
“Interest was just growing in those documents and in the history of our church,” Pechulis said. Thus, a group of church members and volunteers formed the History and Archives Committee earlier this year.
Beyond planning events such as the cemetery tours, the Committee is also hoping to create a database for people to research their family history, using any of the church’s archives.
This will be especially helpful to people like Beth Powers, who comes from Vermont a few times a year to visit her ancestors and family members that are buried there.
“There are eight graves marked as Vandenbeurg (her maiden name),” Powers said. However, she only knows that her great grandparents and a great uncle were buried there. She is in the process of trying to find her family connection to the other plots marked as ‘Vandenbeurg.’
Along the cemetery tour, Haefner discussed the background of three former pastors at the Reformed Church, along with a few of the other prominent headstones.
“Reverend C.P. Ditmars had a reputation as being the kindest ministers-” Haefner said, before a member of the tour group piped up saying that his own parents still talked about the kindness of the minister in the 1950s- 20 years after the minister died.
Haefner also worked to connect national history and trends within the stories of those buried- or with headstones- in the cemetery.
“One thing you’ll notice is that many of these headstones are very close together,” Haefner said. When soldiers would die far away from their home in Niskayuna, families often did not have money to send for the body and would commemorate the life of their loved one with a headstone.
“That’s why the army says that the grave of Richard Ford is in Indiana, yet we have his headstone here,” Haefner said.
Discussions of the symbols and the changing attitudes towards death were peppered throughout the tour.
“Before the 1830s, people called cemeteries burying grounds. It wasn’t until after that era that the term cemetery arose,” Haefner said.
Before looking at the date on any of the stones, there are certain clues that reveal the time period it’s from.
During the 19th century, the headstones were made of white marble to create a ‘city on a hill’ effect. According to Haefner, when a church goes through and cleans the white marble headstones, at noon on a sunny day, the light reflects on the stone making it look just like a holy city on a hill.
There were also certain symbols that gave away the time period.
In the 1800s, the rose symbolized condolences but also a short life. Thus, if there is a rose carved into a headstone, it usually means that the person died young.
Anchors were another symbol woven throughout the headstones in the cemetery. Those symbolized a strong relationship with God and of hope. Then there is the willow tree, which typically stood for grief or sorrow.
However, things began to change in the successive century.
“Art nouveau styles were used in the early 1900s, after symbols like anchors were done away with,” Haefner said.
Don Cazer, who was recently named the historian of Niskayuna, went along on the first tour of the afternoon.
“I came to learn a bit more about this,” Cazer said. With the Church’s archives committee, they’re hoping to help more people like Beth Powers and Cazer to get their history fill and eventually document all 2,400 stories that rest in their back yard.