Finding New Life In An Old Cemetery

As COVID cases soar, Westporters search for safe activities.

Among the best places to explore on your own: cemeteries. Odds are you won’t find anyone infected there (or anyone else alive, for that matter).

Our town is filled with fascinating graveyards. Willowbrook, off Main Street near Cross Highway, is the biggest. Greens Farms Church — Westport’s first meetinghouse — has 2 (“upper” and “lower”) on Hillandale and Greens Farms Roads, near the Sherwood Island Connector.

Saugatuck Church’s Evergreen Avenue cemetery and the one shared by Assumption and Christ & Holy Trinity Churches on Kings Highway North near Old Hill are also filled with Westport names, both famous and obscure.

Smaller cemeteries include Compo Beach Road, Longshore Club Park, Post Road West near the Norwalk town line, and Wilton Road near the Merritt Parkway.

Gray’s Creek cemetery on Compo Beach Road. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

All are easily accessible. But the Kings Highway Colonial Cemetery is not.

It’s a small graveyard at the corner of Kings Highway North and Wilton Road. Unless you walk or bike there, the only access is by parking at the medical office across the street, then taking your life in your hands (bad analogy) as you cross Route 33.

The other day, David Wilson did just that. He grew up in Westport (Staples High School Class of 1975), and still spends plenty of time in the area.

Yet in all those years, he had never explored that cemetery.

He was dismayed to find parts in disrepair. Headstones were knocked over. Brush littered the grounds. Broken trees were everywhere.

(Photo/David Wilson)

Intrigued, David found 2 archived Facebook Live tours of the cemeetery. They were led by Nicole Carpenter, director of programs and education at the Westport Museum for History & Culture.

Once in a driving rain, and once on a beautiful spring day, Nicole gave viewers a look at the gravestones. She explained back stories too, including the changing styles and meanings of the stones’ shapes and colors.

The Taylor family — who gave their name to the neighborhood then called Taylortown (the nearby marsh is still called that) — share a large section with the Marvins (of tavern fame).

Abigail Taylor’s grave.

A non-family member is also interred there: Dinah, a “colored” servant and cook. That’s highly unusual, Nicole explained.

There’s the Judah family too, among the first Jewish residents of Westport (then part of Norwalk). Michael moved from New York City because of anti-Semitism. His son Henry became an Episcopal minister; Henry’s son, Henry Moses Judah, was a brigadier general in the Mexican-American and Civil Wars.

The Judas family owned an estate in Saugatuck, which was named for them. Over the years, Judas Point morphed into Judy’s Point.

The 2 tours are fascinating. If COVID keeps you indoors, click here and here to watch.

Kings Highway Colonial Cemetery.

But Nicole missed one of the most fascinating parts of the cemetery. At a mound not far from the road — perhaps the spot where Benedict Arnold (not yet a traitor) set up a cannon to thwart the British as they returned from their 1777 raid on Danbury (they thwarted him, by taking a different route back to Compo Beach) — there was a secret, spooky spot long known to kids like me, growing up in Westport.

If you lay flat on your stomach, and peered into the area where the ground had shifted, you could see all the way down to the bottom. There — arrayed like a horror film — sat a set of bones.

I’ve forgotten many things about being a kid here.

But as long as I live, I’ll always remember that skeleton.

A section of the burial mound, near where the earth has moved.

20 responses to “Finding New Life In An Old Cemetery

  1. I love this blog! Would you happen to know what cemetery was used in the opening of the original Stepford Wives?

  2. Charles Taylor

    There was an OLD cemetery across the street from out home a 1 River Oaks Rd at the foot of the Nyala Frams meadow which borders the thruway connector almost at the light at the connector and Greens Farms Road. I mean old graves. We used to explore it as teenagers in the late ‘50’s. One tombstone said “his drink was rum”!

    • Michael Calise

      Greens Farms “lower cemetery”

    • My father’s oldest sibling, Karol, was probably born in late 1906 or 1907, and died around 1910 and no one knows where he’s buried. I would love to solve this family mystery.

  3. Michael Calise

    Assumption Cemetery on Greens Farms Road (Westport’s Newest?)

  4. The Town of Westport is the owner of the historic Kings Street cemetery at the corner of Wilton Road and Kings Highway – and is thus responsible for the conservation of the grave markers which rest there. It owns several historic burying grounds, in fact. Nearly all are suffering from losses which stem from the fact that the town does not have a plan of preservation in place. Knowing what I know, exactly nothing will be done to mitigate the ongoing damage to these fragile, publicly owned historic resources.

  5. Andrew Colabella

    I think it would be nice if either the town or a group of caring residents banded together and cleaned up the cemeteries removing brush and cutting up debris, while remaining socially distant.

    • Andrew, the town is responsible maintaining its publicly owned cemeteries.
      And, not for nothing, there is this on the town site in connection with the public agency which seems to be charged with oversight: “It is the objective of the HDC [Historic District Commission] to promote a comprehensive program for the restoration, preservation and ongoing maintenance of cemeteries and burial grounds”. Budget season will be rolling around before you know it. Maybe an elected person will ask the HDC for an update on the above cited “objective”.

      • Andrew Colabella

        I will definitely be requesting this Morley. Would like to see the HDC further preserving our towns historical landmarks and properties.

        • Thanks, as always, for your leadership Andrew.

          As an aside, it’s quite likely that there may be grant funding available to the Town of Westport for the requisite technical and planning assistance needed in this case. The Westport Historic District Commission (HDC) staff person, if directed, would certainly be able to get some visibility on that by contacting the State Historic Preservation Office.

          As for the somnolent and somewhat adrift political appointees on the Westport HDC, it would be useful if they were to understand that our historic cemeteries are not just sacred places; they’re very fragile, non-renewable outdoor archives whose displayed information (which sometimes even includes the price of the stone and name of the stone cutter who made it discreetly carved on the back) may exist nowhere else on the planet.

          Personally, I would be cheered to see the HDC devote less time to holding erroneous public hearings rife with due process violations – such as whether on not a resident in a Local Historic District can place a hummingbird feeder or a rock on his property (don’t laugh, that and much worse happened recently) – and focus instead on actually safeguarding our community’s vital historic heritage. Based on experience, I don’t hold out much hope for that, but there you have it.

  6. Isabelle Breen

    Sounds like there’s an Eagle Scout project in there somewhere…

  7. Thank you, Dan.

    We have lived five houses away from the cemetery for over 37 years and, despite having walked and jogged around the area all these years, have never set foot in it. So, I was really fascinated by your personal account as well as the two clips on the history of the cemetery. Who knew Benedict Arnold was hanging out just a couple hundred feet away or if I lied flat on the ground and peered down in a particular crevice I could see skeletons!

  8. Dan, in about 2010, as an adult, I also got down on my belly and peered into the (lower) Colonel Marvin tomb. Each mound is its own vault, and there are several, containing over 50 burials in total. Each of these vaults once had an entrance with a doorway, which have since filled in with eroded soil. The lowest one, as I recall, closest to Saugatuck River and Rt-7, was the only one with an opening that could be peered through. My recollection is that the hole was formed by the rotted wood header above the entrance. I used a high powered flashlight and took photos with a camera. I examined as much as I could see (about 75% of the floor space), and saw no skeleton , though what I did see was amazing.

    Almost everything that had once been in this vault was either removed or rotted. The floor was covered in what appeared to be a mat of mud and organic matter (e.g. leaves) that no doubt concealed much. Nevertheless, the clear imprint of many coffins was visible in the muck, along with their metal hardware. In other words, it appeared that all organic matter (wood, bodies, bones) had entirely dissolved, leaving the imprints of coffins (like fossils) and a bunch of metal hinges and other hardware. There was also the remains of a rotted wood framework, as if of shelves for stacking the coffins. The only thing that might have been a skeleton, that I saw, was the exposed top of a round object that could have been a cranium (or a stone). I had almost given up hope that anything intact and recognizable remained inside the vault, but then my flashlight caught something on the far left side, the likes of which I had never before seen in my life: it appeared to be a perfectly preserved metal sarcophagus of the Egyptian style, being shaped and stylized like a statue to resemble the human form.

    According to my research, this is the body of Henry Moses Judah. This very unusual form of coffin was only produced for a few years, during the American Civil War and for just a few years afterwards. The metal coffins were mainly used for preserving the bodies of the war dead during the long shipment home, or by wealthy families during the same period. THey were sealed with lead to be air tight, and they contained viewing windows over the faces. They stopped producing these coffins c. 1870. Henry Moses Judah was the only individual buried in the Marvin tomb during this period. Judah was a career Army officer and died just after the war in 1866. Judah was the son of an Episcopal priest, who had converted from Judaism. Though his grandfather lived in Westport, he was mostly raised in Troy, NY. He was a classmate of Grant’s at West Point, served with distinction in the Mexican War, and was a minor character in the Civil War, known mainly for his role in a disastrous attack at Resaca. His role in the Indian wars of California and Oregon of the 1850s is little known but fascinating.

    I understand, from Sven at the Westport Historical Society, that the tomb has since been repaired, so that it is no longer possible to see inside. He also has photographs of the interior, better than mine. The WHS contains much information about the Marvin Tomb and the Judah family in the area. Katie Chase, RIP, was kind enough to supply me copies of most of this information, which I have kept stored with my own research on Judah and the Indian wars.

  9. There were definitely bones visible in the late 1960’s. My friends, Eric Horn and Bill Lahrman both lived up on Ivy Knoll Rd which backs up directly to the rear of the graveyard. Super accessible to curious ghost seeking boys in the late 60’s. We must’ve looked into that vault twenty times showing it to all our friends. We called him him/her the forgotten prisoner of Castel-Mare (an Aurora Model I had back in the day) Such wondrous and exciting times to be a kid in Westport, but to this day I have always wondered how and why those bones were outside of the coffin.

  10. I have found myself walking the cemeteries since Covid.