Making the Grave: Cemeteries and Stone Carvers in New Jersey
Written by NJ Historian
Cemeteries and grave sites dot the New Jersey landscape. Whether it is a small family burial ground in the woods or along a country road, a historic graveyard surrounding a church, or a large memorial park in an open field, cemeteries are a distinct feature of New Jersey. They are peaceful places to remember our ancestors, to ponder life, and are sometimes associated with a ghost story or two! When looking at historic graveyards and grave stones, there is a subtle beauty associated with them. From the rolling hills and placid landscape of a Victorian era cemetery to the art of a skilled carver creating a masterpiece on stone to last generations, you find these cemeteries sitting idly, as life around them unfolds and changes. Yet, these monuments to time remain the same. These stones tell a story, offer inspiring words, and physically represent a traceable history of funerary art that can be seen in the styles of stone, their materials, and the marks left by their carvers.
Early in this nation's history, small rural family plots and church graveyards were the norm. They were eventually supplemented by planned cemeteries with a board of directors beginning in the 1830s. This change in burial reform is known as the rural cemetery movement. By the Victorian period, gravestones began to reflect the changing lifestyle of America, with a gravestone becoming a status symbol. Large obelisks, pillars, statuary, and sculpture filled cemeteries and replaced the small, marble and sandstone tablets of the earlier generation. Eventually, concerns about overcrowded monuments and obstructing views led cemeteries to adopt more rigid policies on stone size and the development of lawn park cemeteries, with standard size memorials and a greater focus on landscaping. Today, cemeteries representing every time period can be found across the state. In this article, I will briefly examine three early cemeteries in New Jersey, two of which are still in use, and point out a few significant events and persons associated with them, in addition to a few carvers who helped shape the cemetery landscape.
"From London truly fam'd came I.
Was born in Stains a place nearby
In Rahway at old Age did Die.
And here intomb'd in earth must lie
Till Christ ye dead calls from on high"
Till Christ ye dead calls from on high"
This epitaph is from the grave of Mr. John Lawrence of Rahway, New Jersey, who "yielded to death" on October 16, 1766.
The Rahway Cemetery was established in 1724. The cemetery property was originally associated with a church building, as were all cemeteries until 1829, when the Historic Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery was incorporated. The First Presbyterian Church of Rahway was built between 1741 and 1742 on what is now St. George's Avenue, just within the current cemetery enclosure. The present main driveway to the cemetery passes directly over the original church site. The church was a two-story frame structure built of heavy timber and its sides were enclosed with shingles, with two rows of windows, and a tower with a spire, to which was adjusted a copper weather-cock, perforated by a bullet said to be a mark of the Revolutionary period. There were galleries on three sides and a small barrel-shaped pulpit for one. Church records indicate that the floor was made of heavy hewn planks, not closely joined, making it necessary for the women of the congregation in the winter season to bring foot-stoves to offset the cold that came through the crevices of the wide floorboards.
The cemetery at Rahway offers a number of stone styles, from its earliest in 1724 through burials of the modern-day. As one travels toward the back of the cemetery, you will notice gradual change in stone styles, as tastes and preferred materials changed. Toward the front are stones made of Jersey sandstone. Toward the middle are a mix of mid-1800s and Victorian style stones. Family plots become more prevalent during this time and many examples exist in this section of the cemetery. The Oliver family mausoleum was placed near the center of the cemetery grounds. Another mausoleum-type structure exists on the property but is now used for maintenance equipment. It can be speculated that this was at one time a receiving vault or perhaps a mausoleum that was abandoned.
Notable burials in this cemetery include Abraham Clark, a delegate for New Jersey to the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He served in the United States House of Representatives in both the Second and Third United States Congress, from March 4, 1791, until his death in 1794. Clark and his wife's markers have been reset within a larger stone monument erected by the Daugthers of the American Revolution in 1924.
|The grave of Abraham Clark and his wife Sarah.|
Near the front of the cemetery among the older headstones is a obelisk dedicated to Dr. John J. Daly. Daly was elected for five terms as mayor of the city of Rahway and died while serving his last term in 1896.
A number of carvers left their mark at Rahway Cemetery. Most notable is John Frazee. Frazee was born in Rahway in 1790. He carved gravestones in Rahway between 1811 and 1814 and in New Brunswick from 1814 to 1818. In 1818 he opened a workshop in New York City specializing in memorials and grave markers. He was well known for tasteful, simple, and well-executed memorials. As he developed his craft, he was commissioned to carve busts of notable Americans and was asked to design the New York Customs House in 1834. Frazee's work can still be seen in cemeteries in Rahway and New Brunswick. Of special note is his first wife's memorial, dated 1832, which is located in the Old Baptist Cemetery in South River.
Other stone carvers who left their mark at Rahway is Henry Osborn of Woodbridge, Aaron Ross of Rahway, and Ebenezer Price of Elizabeth.
Osborn's carvings have been dated between 1776 and 1825 and his work has been found in Rahway, Woodbridge, Cranbury, and Scotch Plains.
|Mark of Henry Osborn, Woodbridge|
Aaron Ross was a late eighteenth/early nineteenth century carver. He was originally from New Brunswick but then moved to Rahway. His signed work can be found at Rahway, Elm Ridge Cemetery in North Brunswick, and the Cranbury Presbyterian Cemetery in Cranbury.
|Stone carved by Aaron Ross|
Ebenezer Price signed markers between 1744 through 1787. He produced cherubs, tulips, and scallop designs. His work can be found in Rahway, Westfield, Union, Elizabeth, and Basking Ridge. His work can also be found in New York City, Long Island, the Carolinas, Georgia, and the Caribbean.
|Stone carved by Ebenezer Price|
Old Tennent Church Cemetery
"Reader behold as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now so you must be
Prepare for death and follow me."
This epitaph is from the grave of Mr. Samuel Rue who passed away October 14, 1808.
The cemetery at Old Tennent Church was established in 1731, as the church moved from its original location five miles away to the present site near famed Monmouth Battlefield. The present Georgian style church building was built in 1751. Noteworthy individuals such as George Whitefield, Jacobus Frelinghusen, Gilbert Tennent and Jonathan Edwards all preached at the Church. David Brainerd, known for converting Native Americans, administered the Sacrament and preached in the building. During the Battle of Monmouth, the site saw action as the church building served as a field hospital for wounded soldiers. During the battle, the church was pierced by cannon balls. As late as 1916, four cannon balls were dug up on the church grounds during regrading. The pews of this sacred church are still scarred by the surgeon's saw and blood of patriot soldiers, many of whom were buried in this church yard. At the top of Oak Hill is the burial place of Lt. Col. Henry Monckton. He was the highest ranking British officer to be killed in action during the Battle of Monmouth.
In 1910 Old Tennent Cemetery began to move away from being a secular cemetery and transformed into a non-denominational site. The original one acre cemetery has blossomed into the present sixty-eight acre site.
In addition to countless, unnamed patriot soldiers, Continental Congressman Nathaniel Scudder is buried in this cemetery. He served as a delegate to the Provincial Congress of New Jersey in 1774, was a member of the State general assembly and served as speaker in 1776. He was a Lieutenant colonel of the New Jersey Militia in 1776 became a colonel in 1781. He rose amongst the ranks of Jerseyites to become a member of the Continental Congress from 1778 to 1779. Unfortunately, Scudder was killed while resisting an invading party of the British Army on October 16, 1781 at Blacks Point, near Shrewsbury, in Monmouth County, New Jersey.
Another notable burial at Old Tennent is Thomas Henderson, New Jersey's third Governor. Henderson served in the New Jersey Militia in 1775 and was appointed to the Minutemen in 1776. He was elected as a Delegate to the Continental Congress in 1779 but declined to serve. He became Acting Governor of New Jersey in 1794 and was elected to the Fourth Congress from 1795 to 1797. He died in Freehold, New Jersey at the age of 81 in 1824.
Three Mile Run Cemetery
"My flesh shall slumber in the ground
Till the last trumpets Joyful sound
Then burst the grave with sweet surprise
And in my Saviors image rise"
This epitaph is from the grave of Reverend John Leydt who passed away June 2, 1783.
The Cemetery at Three Mile Run is one of Middlesex County's earlier cemeteries. Long forgotten and neglected, it has recently been cleaned up and somewhat maintained. The history of the Church at Three Mile Run dates back to 1703, when it is believed that a Dutch Reform Church was established by the recent settlers to the area that is now New Brunswick and Franklin Township. The first meetings would have been held in homes by itinerant ministers who preached on a circuit. The earliest documents mentioning a church building is a subscription list dated 1717. The exact location of the church is still unknown, yet many speculate that it may have been located in the center of the cemetery or nearby along present-day Route 27.
|The cemetery at Three Mile Run, New Brunswick|
The original church was a plain square structure with a tall, pyramid shaped roof. It would have had few windows, no fireplace and a dirt floor. The Church of Three Mile Run's most prominent minister was the controversial Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen, who arrived in New Jersey from Holland in 1720. During Frelinghuysen's tenure, he challenged the Dutch Church by preaching against church doctrine, introducing new customs, and allowing Reverend Gilbert Tennent to preach to the Dutch congregation in English! The congregation became so upset that letters were sent to Holland demanding Frelinghuysen's removal and tradition notes that he was locked out of the church by its members. The disagreements were eventually worked out and Frelinghuysen continued to preach until his death, which documents suggest was in 1748.
The second pastor at the church was Johannes Leydt, who had studied under Frelinghuysen and became the Pator at New Brunswick. It was their family that became the first burials at Three Mile Run. The oldest stone is that of Johannes' daughter Anna Leydt, who died June 10, 1760 at seven months. The next burial was Elizabeth Leydt, who died at the age of twelve on October 27, 1760. These stones are written in Dutch. The Reverend passed away June 2, 1783 and is buried with rest of his family.
|Stone of Elizabeth Leydt, 1760.|
It is unclear when the last services were held at the church, but some historians speculate that services were no longer held at the building after 1754. The building is said to have been destroyed by British troops during the American Revolution.
John Frazee also left his mark at Three Mile Run. On a stone for Johannes Van Liew, the bottom is signed "Frazee & Co." Van Liew died in 1794, when Frazee was only four years old. Frazee operated in New Brunswick between 1814 and 1818, so it can be surmised that this stone replaced an earlier stone that may have been damaged or was the first permanent stone to mark his grave.
"Affliction sore. long time
Physicians art was vain.
But God alone did hear
And eas'd me of my pain."
and Rahway Cemetery on Pinterest
For More Information:
For more information about New Jersey cemeteries, gravestones and carvers, read New Jersey Cemeteries and Tombstones: History in the Landscape, a well-researched book by Dr. Richard Veit and Mark Nonestied.