By Jack Sanders
Stop, careless stranger, pass not by,
Pause and reflect that thou must die.
Remember I was once like thee
And what I am thou soon must be.
This solemn advice from the tombstone of Capt. Joel T. Pike, who died in Ridgefield in 1831, may not turn you on, but the observation or study of graveyard epitaphs and art have become increasingly popular pastimes, especially in New England. And Ridgefield has no shortage of interesting gravestones.
In many ways, a graveyard is like an encyclopedia of community history. A cemetery contains birth and death records, genealogies, and historical anecdotes. The stones reflect the times and tenor of the people, their moral and religious beliefs, and their customs.
The size and elaborateness of tombstones tell of the wealth of those buried under them, and collectively these monuments reflect the economy of a town through various periods in its history. Changing tastes in art and architecture are found in graveyards, just as in the houses of the town. So are trends in literature.
But most aficionados of cemeteries, be they occasional or regular visitors, come for more romantic reasons, as did Thomas Gray, who in Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard, put the feeling to poetry:
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell forever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
Ridgefield’s forefathers lie entombed in about two dozen cemeteries scattered about the community. Because travel wasn’t easy and because the pioneers had a great feeling of kinship and closeness, many were family cemeteries, holding only a dozen or two graves and located near their homes, often clustered farmhouses. But the ravages of time, weather, vandals, and even developers have reduced the number of visible or marked graveyards to fewer than 12.
The oldest is the “Burying Ground,” laid out by the first settlers in 1708. Located on Wilton Road East, just south of the Main Street intersection, the graveyard is marked with a monument reading: “Ye burying yard lay’d out ye Nov. 25, 1708 by the first settlers of the town of Ridgefield.”
The marker goes on to list 40 pioneers who are buried there as well as “an unknown British soldier killed at the Battle of Ridgefield.” The Village Improvement Society erected the monument in 1931 after vandals, thieves and the elements had destroyed most of the old stones.
When he was writing his History of Ridgefield in the 1920s, George L. Rockwell found only two tombstones still standing in the old burying ground. By 1973, when the first version of this article was written, nothing remained except a small portion of a slate stone that said: “54th year of his age.” It belonged to the grave of Capt. Matthew Benedict, “who departed this life July 7, 1757” and who was born five years before the town was settled. By 2001, that stone was not visible and only the monument was there.
The old buying ground has been not well kept, a
fact that would
have made the old Village Improvement Society shudder. In 1973, several
had fallen across the rarely mowed grass, and had been left to rot. In
the local garden clubs cleaned up the property, but by April 2001, the
was unkempt, overgrown in parts, unraked, and with trash dumped along
perimeter. A sign out front, dated 1988, says the local garden clubs
restored the cemetery and were maintaining it. The sign itself was
apart, but has since been replaced.
Next oldest and perhaps the most interesting is the Old Town or Titicus Cemetery, along Mapleshade Road. Laid out in 1735, it contains more 18th Century stones than any other cemetery here, including the town’s oldest lettered gravestone and the resting places of 52 veterans of the Revolutionary War. Many stones are in excellent condition despite being more than two and a half centuries old.
The Titicus Cemetery is one of six graveyards in the triangle surrounded by North Street, North Salem Road, and Mapleshade Road -- a collection of cemeteries often called simply “Ridgefield Cemetery.” The town acquired Mapleshade Cemetery in 2006. There’s also:
Mapleshade Cemetery, laid out in 1850
The Scott’s or Gage’s Cemetery, 1876
The Hurlbutt Cemetery, sometime before 1860
The Lounsbury-Rockwell Cemetery, 1894
The Fairlawn Cemetery, the newest portion, laid out in 1909.
Because the number and variety of dates of the stones in these cemeteries, they are the most representative and instructive in the town.
Just up the road, on the east side of North Street, is the fairly new St. Mary’s Cemetery, laid out in 1882 and greatly expanded in 1924.
The third oldest of Ridgefield’s cemeteries is probably the most picturesque. Situated beneath tall, drooping trees in one of the oldest and most untouched sections of the town, the Ridgebury Cemetery was established in 1743, shortly after the town fathers acquired Ridgebury from the local American Indians. The cemetery is on Ridgebury Road, a few doors north of the Ridgebury Congregational Church.
This graveyard has readable stones dating from the 1770s to modern times and contains the remains of 14 Revolutionary War veterans.
Of the public cemeteries, Branchville is second only to the main town cemetery in number of tombstones. While it is not as old (stones date back to around 1810), it is unusual in that the grounds contain the graves of many immigrants from European nations, such as Finland, Norway, Italy, and France, who worked at the nearby Gilbert and Bennett wire mill in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Stones are sometimes lettered in native languages and occasionally the plots are designed in unusual fashion, such as one grave of a Scandinavia native that is covered with white gravel and has a unique marker over it.
Branchville Cemetery, off Florida Road on an old section of the Branchville Road, is well maintained and attractive.
The next largest graveyard is the New Florida Cemetery, at the corner of Route 7 and Simpaug Turnpike. “New” is a relative term; the grounds were laid out in 1835, and contain the remains of many individuals who had been buried previously in the “Old Florida Cemetery” along the north side of Old Redding Road, off Route 7. They were moved to New Florida in 1837 for some reason not explained in the histories of the town, although a few stones were still left at Old Florida.
Among the 50 or 60 stones at New Florida Cemetery may be found the marker of George Washington Gilbert, “the hermit of Ridgefield,” who died in 1924. The same stone also marks the grave of his parents.
To the rear of the yard stands a recent, but unusual stone marking the grave of Edith Taxtersmidt, who died May 8, 1938, aged 68. The crude lettering is done by an amateur’s hand, suggesting that the woman died too poor to afford a professionally cut stone. Some friend or relative did what he could to make the tombstone. Such stones are quite unusual in Ridgefield, although not in other areas.
The Florida cemetery is unusual in another respect. Because it is on a curve close to heavily traveled Route 7, it has suffered from the advent of the automobile. Cars have smashed into the stone wall surrounding the yard, hurling rocks into and shattering a half-dozen gravestones.
The grounds are not well kept and a wrought-iron gate at its entrance had fallen from its pintles in 1973.
Several family burying grounds still exist, some of them in excellent condition
The Beers Cemetery on Nod Hill Road, near the Wilton line, containing about 20 stones mostly from the Beers, but also the Bouton, Sanford, and Jellick families who farmed the southeast part of town from the 1830s to the early 1900s. The grounds, well kept over the years by scouts and others, are surrounded by stonewalls, a common practice.
The Selleck Cemetery, located on Bennett’s Farm Road just south of the intersection with Limestone Road, contains about 15 stones from the mid-19th Century, members of the Selleck, Sillick, and Field families, most in good condition, as are the grounds. Interesting here is the fact that some stones do not carry the full family name of Selleck, but merely the initial “S” – a reasonable thing to do since the grounds belonged to the Sellecks.
The Seymour Cemetery on South Olmstead Lane contains a handful of stones marking the graves of Seymours, Benedicts, and Olmsteads who lived in that area in the early to mid-19th Century. Fields, then woods had surrounded it. In the 1980s and 1990s, houses sprang up and today, the cemetery is part of someone’s front yard – albeit surrounded by stonewalls.
Two other family cemeteries are landlocked and surrounded by private property, and thus are not accessible to the public. The Davis Cemetery is off the east side of Silver Spring Road near the Wilton line. While it once had two dozen 19th Century headstones, there now appear to be fewer. However, the writer could view the cemetery only from the road at the end of the driveway to #6 Silver Spring Road. The cemetery is on a hill beyond the driveway, several hundred feet from the road.
Similarly, the Gamaliel Smith Cemetery off the east side of lower West Lane, just north of Country Club Road, is surrounded by private property, but can be seen in the distance from a driveway. It appears to have at least one stone still standing.
At least one graveyard has simply disappeared. In the mid-18th Century, the Episcopal Church maintained a mission on Ridgebury Road, next to which was a cemetery. Tradition has it that sometime after the mission church closed at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War (when Tory Episcopalians were not popular), many of the stones were removed and used for fill around a house being built nearby. The 1934 census of Ridgefield cemeteries says the Episcopal cemetery was abandoned "60 years ago." The few remaining markers were moved sometime in the 20th Century to another cemetery.
Little is known of the men who designed and executed the finely detailed stones here. While a few not-so-modest stonecutters in New England signed their work, none of the stones in this town seems to be so marked.
In Ridgefield some of the finest efforts of these artisans came from the 18th Century and many surviving stones may have been the work of the same man. Slate stones, by far the most lasting, were common into the 1770s and many bear marked similarities. Even old Titicus headstones, when compared to those at Ridgebury, seem to have come from the same hands.
Although the early artwork was not particularly creative, it was typical of the times. The tops of many slate and granite stones bear the likenesses of a winged skull, which some say represents the angel of death. These macabre reminders of what’s to come were joined with equally dire warnings in script and reflected the strong and harsh religious tenets of the times.
During this period, perhaps the most popular gravestone verse in Ridgefield was the following, said to be a paraphrase of the epitaph of Edward, the Black Prince, son of Edward III of England, who died in 1376:
Behold and see as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you must be
Prepare to die and follow me.
That verse is found here in many variations, including Captain Pike’s at the beginning of this article, and one on the stone of Charles Pickett at Titicus, which begins: “Call [recall], dear friends, as you pass by.”
Another variation on the same theme is on the stone of Sarah Elizabeth Smith, wife of LeGrand Hull, who died in 1857, aged 18:
Farewell, dear friends, my memory keep,
Wherein death [sic] arms my body sleeps
Short was my stay, will you below
Sooner or later, all must go.
Even the markers of a few children’s graves became spots to post deathly warnings. The following is from the tombstone of John Gould Hauley, grandson of the town’s first minister, who “died suddenly April ye 11th 1760 in ye 9th year of his age”:
From youth and vigor soon he fled
Uncertain here we draw our breath
How soon we pass from life to death.
Extending into the 1800s, the desire to warn the living of the inevitability of death was still popular. The epitaph on the stone of Hiram S. Mead reads:
Death, the great conqueror, has took my friend away
Rest here until the great Judement [sic] Day
No dropping tear nor partners acheing heart
Can secure thee from death’s most cruel dart.
At around this time attitude began to change. After the Revolution, the new nation eventually settled down to a growing prosperity. Ridgefield became a bustling, albeit small-scale, farming and industrial community in the 19th Century and, like other New Englanders, townspeople began to be affected by the growing intellectualism and the trends and fancies that came with it. And so were gravestone art and literature.
Perhaps no stone in this town typifies the transition more than that of Jesse S. Banks. The first two lines of his gravestone verse are harsh and cold while the second couplet is lofty and optimistic, more typical of the 19th Century:
Early removed from life’s embittered woes
Beneath the clods his mouldering limbs repose.
His spirit pure has winged its airy flight
And soared to realms of unalloyed delight.
Other epitaphs that show the optimistic, even romanticized side of death, include:
He hath gone to his home for the race is run
And the wreath is around is brow,
The angels saw when the prize was won
And they greet him in heaven now.
Weep not for a brother deceased,
Our lost is his infinite gain.
This one is very indicative of the romantic era, found, ironically, on a fallen stone:
You may break and destroy the vase if you will
But the scent of rose will cling to it still.
Another combination of the good and bad, this time a comparison of sad life with happy death:
He’s gone, the husband, father, friend,
Where sorrows, sin and weeping end.
Weep not, she is not dead, but sleepeth.
Not only epitaphs, but artwork changed with the times in the 19th Century. Instead of skulls, Ridgefield gravestones from the 1800s depicted such symbols as weeping willows, a sign of mourning, shafts of wheat, and flowers.
Unfortunately, the scarcity of slate prompted purveyors of monuments to use granite and other types of stone that have not held up as well as did the markers of slate. Many of the designs, as well as the epitaphs, of 19th Century stones have become barely decipherable under the wear of weather and probably air pollution.
Few epitaphs on Ridgefield stones are repeated. How many might have been authored by members of the deceased’s family or by local ministers cannot be determined, although it’s probable that many epitaphs were written by professional gravestone writers (not unlike our greeting card versifiers), who circulated their works for a fee among stonecutters and ministers.
The trend toward the hopeful epitaph was followed by another trend – brevity. This was due in part perhaps to the rising cost of lettering stones, and in part to the tendency toward simplicity, which is characteristic of our gravestones and our architecture today.
Typical of late 19th Century and early 20th Century brevity are the following:
He giveth his beloved sleep.
Rest on, Dear Mother.
Gone but not forgotten.
I have found the share of everlasting rest.
God is love.
Today, few gravestones are marked with any words other than the names and birth-and-death dates.
Gravestones tell many a tale. Most of them, of course, are tragedies that resulted in the death of the stone’s name bearer. Samples of such found in Ridgefield include:
Lewis Mead, who died Dec. 5, 1802
on board the ship, Penman, Capt. Coffin, on his passage from Canton to New York, aged 25 years and four months.
Lewis farewell, thy thread of life is spun
Thy friends regret and thy loss lament
Revere the virtues of a life well spent.
There was Ira Keeler
whom in the 29th year of his age and on the 23 of Dec. 1818 was shipwrecked off Cape May when every person on board perished.
This stone records the past hazards of both childbirth and infancy:
In memory of Eliza Belinda, wife of John H. Drew, who died Feb. 22, 1839, aged 20 yr 3 mo. Also Eliza B., daughter of John H. and Eliza B. Drew, who died March 10, 1839, aged one month.
However, few family tragedies can match this:
In memory of Phebe, wife of Jeremiah Birchard, died Sept ye 8th 1777 in ye 28th year of her age. She and 3 of her children in 18 days.
The gravestone of only one of her children still exists, nearby her stone at Ridgebury. The four of them may have died of small pox, as was the case in the following:
In memory of Sarah, daughter of Bartholomew and Sarah Weed, who died by the small pox by innoculation [sic], April 8, 1782, aged 26 years, 6 months and 2 days.
It had long been common knowledge that anyone who had survived small pox became immune to the disease. In the late 1700s, “inoculation,” also called variolation, involved infecting people with small pox, usually from pustules of people who had had mild cases, in the hope that they would become immune. The Weeds were obviously not pleased with the effect that the new medical treatment had on their daughter.
In memory of Elijah, son of Bartholomew and Sarah Weed, who was drowned May 9, 1779, aged 17 years, 8 months, and 9 days.
More tragedy for the Weeds. Unlike people of today, who would hardly note the cause of death – such as an auto accident – early settlers often did so when the cause was somewhat unusual. Another example:
In memory of Sylvester Godfrey who died a prisoner of war at Andersonville, Ga., while in the service of his country, Sept. 19, 1864, ae. 35 years.
The death of a child is an especially sad event. However, during the 18th Century, when child deaths were probably most common, few lettered stones were erected to mark graves.
During the 19th Century when people tended to be more sentimental in their remembrances, many markers were placed over children’s graves. The epitaphs on most reflected the sentimentalism and optimism of the age.
He sleeps that long dreamers sleep
From which none ever wakes to weep.
This stone in memory
Of a lovely youth doth stand
Who fell an early prey
By deaths unerring hand.
He was his friend delight
His parents joy he prov’d
And he died lamented
And he lived belov’d.
Sweet babe, thou has left us
We thou face no more shall see
But we hope in Heaven to meet thee
And with Jesus ever be.
Little Louie died July 18, 1860, aged three years, 10 months, and 5 days.
This stone, near the Dykeman plot at Mapleshade Cemetery, is typical of many that label the child simply “Little” Joe or Jane. Nearby is “Little Carrie” in a Bouton plot.
She was the sunshine of our home
An angel to us given
Just when we learned to love her most
God called her home to heaven.
Suffer little children to come to me, for such is the kingdom of heaven.
This biblical quotation is on the Ridgebury stone of Lillie G. Field, who died in 1863, aged nine months. Surprisingly, few quotations from the Bible are found on Ridgefield gravestones.
Little Angie, daughter of Nathan and Anna M. Couch, died Dec. 7, 1874, ae. 5 y’rs, 5 mo’s and 14 days. Erected by her grandfather, T.N. Couch.
This New Florida Cemetery stone is unusual in that the grandfather makes note of his sponsorship. He apparently was quite fond of Angie.
She has gone to heaven before us
But she turns and waves her hand
Pointing to the glories o’er
In that happy spirit land.
This is about as sentimental a stone as one can find in Ridgefield.
Rest in peaceful
Safely folded in the saviours arms.
A close reading of gravestones sometimes reveals unusual situations. For instance, in Ridgebury stand three identical stones of the same size and design. They are for the three wives of the Rev. Samual Camp, minister of the Ridgebury Congregational Church from 1769 until 1804. Hanna died in 1777, aged 34; Lucretia, in 1782, aaged 35; and Mary, 1800, aged 55. Mr. Camp resigned due to failing health in 1804. Although he did not die until 1813, perhaps fortunately for the women of Ridgebury, he did not remarry.
At Titicus, a stone marks the children of Deacon Elisha (d. 1850, aged 91) and Charity (d. 1860, aged 99) Hawley, whose “remains lie interred in various parts of the world,” including Stamford, New York City, and Leghorn, Italy. Son Stiles, “a candidate for the gospel ministry, was drowned in attempting to cross the Kaskaskia River, Il., Jan. 18, 1830 ae 32. He was Laboring in the cause of Sabbath schools in behalf of the board of the USS Union.”
Another stone, probably in the Mapleshade portion of the town cemeteries, is a 20-foot monument, atop which is an angel pointing to heaven. This is a typical Victorian stone, large and ornate like the architecture of the period.
The monument belongs to the Henry Irving Beers family and on one side, notes that Henry was “born in Ridgefield, Conn., June 8, 1830, died Oil City, Pa., Feb. 22, 1917, a pioneer of California, 1849, and of the oil fields of Pennsylvania, 1861.”
In 1863, Mr. Beers bought a Rouseville, Pa., farm, drilled for oil, and would up with a field worth at least $4 million of 1860s dollars. He became one of the outstanding financial figures of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia in the latter 19th Century, and often advised President Grover Cleveland on financial matters. He was probably the richest man ever to be born in Ridgefield. His tombstone reflects it.
As noted before, many unusual stones with a continental influence may be found at Branchville. One such marker is over the grave of Aina Augusta Karolina Nordlung, who died in 1905. Her epitaph reads: “Kristos aer miet life och doden aer min vining.” Although she was born in Finland, the epitaph is in Swedish and translates: “Christ is my life and death is my profit.”
Gravestones also became testimonial plaques, paying tribute to lives well lived, as some previous examples have shown. Other interesting testimonials include:
She was but a smile
Which glistens in a tear
Seen but a little while
But, ah, how loved, how dear.
A kinder mother, friend more dear
Was never found a home to cheer,
Not ever wife more free from guile
Than she who sleeps beneath this pile.
A good minister of Jesus Christ.
Religious beliefs, of course, had strong influence on the nature of epitaphs, many examples of which appear above. Some others, demonstrating strong faith in Christianity, are:
Where the redeemed in Christ shall be
There, dear friends, thou look for me.
With heavenly weapons, I have fought
The battles of the Lord
Finished my course and kept the faith
And wait for sure reward.
Dearest brother, thou has left us
And thy loss we deeply feel
But ’tis God that had bereft us
He can all our sorrows heal.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
A most interesting example of faith with a bit of caution or perhaps hesitancy is the long-winded Ridgebury stone of Paty Keeler, who died in 1847, aged 35:
Dear sister, she has gone from our sight, nevermore to return. But we hope that if we are faithful until death that we all shall meet our dear sister and mother in heaven, for we trust they have gone there. If it had been the Lord’s will to have spared them, we should like their company. But we must be still and know that it is the Lord’s will.
Spelling and grammatical mistakes creep into tombstones as in almost everything else written, and some graveyard enthusiasts make a specialty of collecting such mistakes. Among the ones found in town are the spelling of judgment as judement on Hiram Mead’s stone, above, and the misspelling on Elisha Hawley’s marker, which says: “who for 60 years served as deacon of the 1st Congregational Church Ridgfield.”
The Titicus stone of Miriam, wife of Joshia Lobdell, says she died on Oct. 21, 1289, aged 67. The difference between some engraved 2s and 7s is small, but even George Rockwell noted the error back in the 1920s when he was writing his History of Ridgefield.
The cutters of gravestones also had disagreements on grammar. In Titicus Cemetery, the marker of William E. Keeler says “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,” while the neighboring stone of Joseph and Abigail Mead states: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.” Who was correct?
Gravestone art and epitaph writing have joined many other crafts now classified as vanished Americana. While attractive gravestone art is produced today, most consists of an assembly line, machine-made product lacking in individuality of the hand-cut work of the stone sculptor.
Epitaphs have all but disappeared from modern tombstones. Perhaps many mortals fear being pompous or different in death. But for gravestone readers of the future, there is some hope. A nationwide group, called “The Society for the Revival of the Descriptive Epitaph,” was formed in the 1970s “to restore the use of narrative epitaphs on gravestones, and thus to record in lasting form, the personal histories which reflect America’s way of life.”
Should you decide to pass on with a few words in rock overhead, use slate so they’ll last. Who knows, you may prompt an elegy from some 22nd Century Thomas Gray.
 Ridgefield Cemetery, old section.
 John Barber, d. 1779, ae.71, and Phebe Birchard, d. 1777; both Ridgebury
 d. 1837, ae. 25
 New Florida Cemetery
 Titicus Cemetery
 d.1836, ae. 23, Titicus Cemetery
 d. 1830, ae. 19, Titicus Cemetery
 Orace S. Betts, “son and only child” of Jonathan and Sarah Betts, d. 1878, ae. 33, Branchville Cemetery
 John Dollard, d. 1863, ae. 21, Branchville Cemetery
 Angeline Bradley, d. 1871, ae. 65, New Florida Cemetery
 Deacon Timothy Mead, d. 1817, ae. 39, Ridgebury Cemetery
 Fannie B. Smith Godfrey, d. 1886, ae. 26, Branchville Cemetery
 Hattie W. Bennett, d. 1877, Branchville Cemetery
 Anna Beers, d. 1880, ae. 76, Beers Cemetery
 A common epitaph; Rhoda Beers, d. 1881, ae. 87, Beers Cemetery
 Marietta Sniffen, d. 1899, ae. 35, Branchville Cemetery.
 Betty Crossley Lockwood, d. 1901, ae. 70, Branchville Cemetery. The stone of her husband, David, was even briefer: “At rest.”
 Titicus Cemetery
 Titicus Cemetery
 Ridgebury Cemetery
 Ridgebury Cemetery
 Ridgebury Cemetery
 New Florida Cemetery
 Charles E. Selleck, d. 1852, ae. 3, Selleck Cemetery
 Ebenezer Hawley, d. 1807, ae. 17, Titicus Cemetery
 Sarah Jane Selleck, d. 1855, one year, seven months, Selleck Cemetery
 “Our Emma” Beers, d. 1861, ae. 9 months, Beers Cemetery
 Mary J. Brown, d. 1875, ae. 9, Branchville Cemetery
 One stone evidently marks the graves of more than one child of Orlando J. Williams, who had two wives. Late 19th Century. Branchville Cemetery
 Mattie May Perry, d. 1883, ae. one year, Branchville Cemetery
 Nettie C. Main Williams, d. 1885, ae. 33, Branchville Cemetery
 Mary Hurlbutt, d. 1860, ae. 34, Branchville Cemetery
 The Rev. George J. Harrison, d. 1893, Old Town Cemetery
 Elizabeth Hoyt, d. 1870, ae. 69, Titicus Cemetery.
 Jacob St. John, d. 1841, ae. 36, Ridgebury Cemetery
 W. M. J. Selleck, d. 1857, ae. 24, Selleck Cemetery
 Carl E. Jaderlund, d. 1899, Branchville Cemetery. Also found on the nearby stone of Aaron Bennett, d. 1867.