Genealogists are accustomed these days to using the internet to find lost branches of their family trees. And of course, government record rooms still hold key documents. But there’s as another important resource that is in danger of becoming extinct: cemeteries.
“Cemeteries are actually very important resources for tracing family heritage,” said Bob Murgittroyd, former president of the Hudson County Genealogical Society, last week. “Tombstones can contain lots of valuable information. They might include not only the name of the person who died and who is buried in that grave, but the names of the person’s parents may be included, birth dates, and death dates.”
Murgittroyd estimates that there are hundreds of old cemeteries in the state that are falling into a state of disrepair due to overgrown weeds and a general lack of regular maintenance. At least three of those cemeteries are right here in Hudson County.
“We’re losing this information due to neglect,” he said.
In an effort to raise awareness of the importance of preserving and maintaining the graveyards, the Hudson County Genealogical Society and the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy will co-host “The Lost Cemeteries of Hudson County Bus Tour” on May 9. Tour participants will get to see Speer Cemetery, Harsimus Cemetery, and the Old Bergen Reformed Church Cemetery – all in Jersey City – and the site of the former Hudson County Cemetery in Laurel Hill in Secaucus.
The event will include a talk by featured speakers Richard Veit and Mark Nonestied, co-authors of the book “Stranger Stop and Cast an Eye: New Jersey’s Historic Cemeteries and Graveyards Through Four Centuries.” After their talk, the bus tour will begin.
Keys to history
Hudson County cemeteries have a unique importance to American history, according to Murgittroyd.
“Hudson County has always been a transient area,” he noted. “Historically, people would come to the area. Their families stay for a little while. Then they would move on. During their brief stay in New Jersey it wasn’t uncommon for a family member to die. Those family members are buried here, even though the rest of the family tree may have eventually settled somewhere else.”
Graves, he noted, may also contain important information researchers won’t find in databases and public records, most notably information about young children who died.
Dozens of war veterans and known Hudson County historical figures are buried in neglected cemeteries.
Cemeteries here have another important link to history. Dozens of war veterans and Hudson County historical figures are buried in some of the cemeteries that are now in a state of neglect.
In one case, Harsimus Cemetery in Jersey City stopped being taken care of by the property owners years ago, so a volunteer group had to step in to keep it clean.
Murgittroyd said he’d like to see volunteer groups and local governments work together to preserve local burial grounds.
“If you take a look at Harsimus Cemetery in Jersey City, what is sometimes now known as ‘Sopranos’ Cemetery’ because that’s where HBO filmed a lot of funeral scenes for The Sopranos, they have a preservation group that picks up trash,” Murgittroyd said. “And the efforts of that group show what can be done with just a few volunteers.”
He added that neighborhoods and local governments also have a stake in maintaining the properties, as old dilapidated graves can become magnets for garbage, crime, and mischievous teenagers. In fact, as reported in the Reporter last year, dozens illegal aliens were using a cemetery in North Bergen for shelter.
To sign up for the May 9 bus tour, visit www.HudsonCountyGenalogicalSociety.org. The tour will be preceded by a lecture that will begin at 10 a.m. at the Secaucus Public Library and Business Resource Center at 1379 Paterson Plank Road, Secaucus. The cost is $10 for the general public, $5 for members of the HCGS.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.