Surveying Machpelah Cemetery

This semester, for my service learning requirement in my U.S. History 1 class, I chose to assist in my professor’s project concerning cemetery art in the Burned-Over District (any area within 25 miles of the Erie Canal). This area was the sight of enormous religious revivals in the mid-19th century as a result of the Second Great Awakening. Professor Derek Maxfield is trying to find out if this series of religious revivals had any effect on tombstone art in the area. To do this, he is collecting photographs of thousands of tombstones throughout the area. Last week, I spent three and a half hours in Machpelah Cemetery in Leroy, New York, just behind the Jell-O Factory. I combined forces with my brother, Ian, and my friend, Doug to survey this massive cemetery.

Machpelah Cemetery was established in 1858 in the midst of the rural cemetery movement (the movement in which cemeteries became more like parks, as much a place of reposition for the living as a resting place for the dead). It was named after the Bible verse Genesis 49:30, which says in part, “inthe cave in the field of Machpelah …” The land for the cemetery as purchased with the assistance of Chauncey Olmsted, who would later be buried in the cemetery along with his family. The cemetery today contains around 5,500 graves and covers nearly 28 acres of land. Between the three of us who covered the cemetery, we took photographs of around 1,500 graves, all with a death date between 1800 and 1920.

The cemetery is broken up into units. When entering the cemetery through wrought-iron gates, the section names go in reverse alphabetical order from left to right. To the farthest left are sections F, G, and H. Most of these gravestones are of a more recent period that our project required. My brother tackled sections D, E, and B, working left to right. I was able to find all 500 of my stones in section C, which had few stones dated later than the 1920s. Doug tackled section A, but he barely scratched the surface of the eligible stones there because that section is the oldest and largest part of the cemetery.

I certainly began to notice patterns as I walked through my section taking pictures. Most graves were part of a family set. For example, in the upper-right corner of Section C, there is a large monument dedicated to the Bangs family. It listed all the names of the Bangs family members buried in that cemetery. Radiating out from that monument were then individual graves for each of the family members listed. This family was notable because many of the individual stones outside of the monument were also very detailed. There were three graves for the children Howard, Daisy, and Hope Bangs that looked like cribs from a distance. For other families, such detail was not necessarily affordable, so most of the family sites were made up of one large family monument with the names, relations, and birth and death dates on them surrounded by small, ankle- to knee-height stones that contained only the first name of the deceased. I had to check the monument for the death date to be certain that the stone I was photographing was of the appropriate period.

Some stones were still in very good condition despite considerable age, but some were illegible. However, it was interesting to see how the family chose to represent themselves in their family monuments. Some families chose red marble, a pretty stone that nonetheless made it difficult to read inscriptions, and some chose granite. Some chose obelisk shapes, while others chose intricately carved monuments that contained images like crowns, anchors, or garlands to symbolize their family. I occasionally found myself wondering why they chose the images they did. It was interesting also to see family names repeated on other stones as daughters of one family married sons of another family. It reminded me of just how small a town Leroy, New York has been.

It was a beautiful say when I went to take my photographs, and I enjoyed the weather and the peace and quiet offered by the cemetery. 500 photographs is a lot, but I did begin to see patterns forming around me. It was intriguing to think about how these families must have lived and how they came to chose the memorial stone style that they did. Though it was tiring, I enjoyed the experience and I hope that my contribution to Professor Maxfield’s project will help him draw conclusions in answer to his question about tombstone art in the Burned-Over District during the Second Great Awakening.

By Sarah Lawson

Sarah is a home-schooled junior and attends classes at GCC.

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About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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