19 Aug 2014
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Through the Cemetery Gates

Going for a drive through Waterford's largest burial ground.

Through the Cemetery Gates

Lately I keep finding myself in cemeteries. It’s inevitable when you write about history, I guess. Death is one of those concrete details, like births and marriages and the conquering of land, that can be pinned down. It’s a historical plot twist that books and timelines can usually be sure of, a point to help secure a person, or a time, in your mind.

For all the cemeteries I’d been to, though, none were in Waterford. I felt like I was neglecting Waterford’s dead. So I went to . There may be  more intriguing burial grounds in town, but I took the easy way out and started with the largest. At 35 acres, Jordan Cemetery is vast. The first burial here probably took place in 1826. The business was family-owned then. The Chappells ran the cemetery until 1932, when they sold it to the .

My original idea was to stroll through the grounds, reading the truncated biographies of generations of people carved in stone. But it was cold. Very, very cold. And so I took the easy way again, and drove. That turned out to be a good thing because Jordan Cemetery is like a town, with different sprawling neighborhoods and multiple roads and four-way intersections.

In the rows of graves, eras overlap. There are some old obelisks; if you can use the word “modest” to describe obelisks, that’s what they are. There are some grander monuments, too, but even those seem restrained, humbled by time or by the presence of so many newer graves. There are time- worn small stones, which would not be remarkable on their own, but which, overshadowed by shinier and larger memorials, seem to cling tenaciously to the past.

Obelisks went out of style long ago, in favor of rectangular slabs bearing just a last name, written in bold letters. There were couples buried beneath grave markers etched with two hearts entwined, and a headstone in the shape of a peace sign that made me think of a tribe of Neolithic hippies. Some graves were adorned with flowers and flags and knick-knacks disturbed by the weather, some with nothing.

Find A Grave lists two famous people (well, the site categorizes them as “somewhat famous”) buried here. Wallace A. Beckwith fought in the Civil War, and received a Congressional Medal of Honor. William Jennings Miller represented Connecticut’s 1st District in the House of Representatives. Before that he fought in WWI, as an infantry soldier and then a pilot. He lost both legs in a plane crash in France in 1918.

Wars are another way to pin down history. Captain David Connor, buried in section 16 of Jordan Cemetery (whichever one that is), fought in the Spanish American War, with the 3rd Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. He died in August of 1933, so not, obviously, during the Spanish American War. Staff Sergeant Edwin Rivera, of the Connecticut National Guard, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. His grave stands apart in its own island of grass. It is festooned with crosses and mementos and bows, and small American flags that have managed to stand upright despite the wind.

I drove down the narrow roads uncertainly. There was no room on any of them for a car coming the other way, and there was no mark indicating whether they were one-way, or which way was correct. But no one else was around. At the outer edges of the cemetery, the places where the gravel roads become faint dirt tracks on grass, I turned around. That seemed off limits. It is one thing to wander through the domain of the dead, searching for snippets of times gone by. It’s something else to enter the blank spaces that wait for new arrivals, to intrude on history not yet made.

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