For the past 50 years, I have, from time to time, visited the principal graveyard on Plains Road in New Paltz, New York where I grew up. I today live on the west coast and New Paltz is on the east, but, never mind, I get back there two or three times a year. Classmates have been buried there for more than 56 of my almost 70 years.
This cemetery has been throughout my life a scorecard, a meaningful gauge of the vicissitudes of life and certainty of death.
This is also the community where I was introduced to old and rare books in the mid 1950s, and first glimpsed life as a tapestry, the local cemeteries each a patchwork of complex, interesting stories, most of which have been lost over time.
This was a book town, in part because of the State College there [now a university], and in part because history has always been close to the surface. History matters in this part of Ulster County, and it’s not a new thing.
Peter Force, the great compiler of important American documents grew up here as the 19th century dawned. He would go on to publish Tracts and Other Papers, Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America, now mostly forgotten, but in the first half of the 19th century a pre-bibliographical breakthrough that documented important national records. Today the structure of records is a given. When he developed his tracts, the rule was simply “be faithful and do no harm,” and he did that.
In the 1950s, Bill Heidgerd, then a rare book dealer, would sell the occasional rare book, but mostly curated his own superb local collection—a decade later bringing it to the Elting Memorial Library where today it is the core holding of the Haviland-Heidgerd Collection. For many years he was also the library’s president.
If New Paltz was home to bibliographical luminaries, it has also been a fertile ground for collectors, and I’m one of them. Mr. Heidgerd sold me my first collectable books and challenged me to find others he had heard of, but never seen.
But even in the 1950s, I don’t recall much competition for the occasional rare books that auctioneers dispersed with a plea for bids. In that way, I bought the three volume set of Bigelow’s Botany [1817, 1818, 1820] for $2.75 and sold them ten years later to buy my first car. Because local auctions were random and undocumented, they were difficult to follow. Most of the better material made its way to the library. I can recall being told by auctioneers, “the library wants this,” in which case you didn’t bid. In New Paltz, the spirit of place and history was alive.
Even so, times change.
Sixty years ago, we children, if bad luck or disaster intervened, were buried in family plots, many of the stones pledging reunification with parents in eternal life. It was a powerful message to the living intended for the few who recognized the names and the fewer still that knew the stories. Efforts were made to keep the stories alive but it was difficult.
Gravestone books such as “Old Gravestones of Ulster County by J. W. Poucher and B. J. Terwilliger in 1931, – invariably were published in small numbers. They contained locations, names and dates but lost the details that made people understandable. This always seemed a missed opportunity, but the means and mechanisms had yet to be developed to create such an electric continuum. Today we have capabilities not even imagined fifty years ago, and we have an opportunity, one I believe that both Peter Force and William Heidgerd would commend.
Throughout my life, the cemetery on Plains Road has been nicely maintained and even so, the number of visitors has steadily declined. I know this because for two decades I have observed and asked. Friends and survivors eventually move on, often to distant places where cemeteries can seem beside the point. So too does cremation increasingly seem a better option, the outcome ashes that can go in a thousand directions but less and less beneath cemetery markers.
Slowly, inexorably, cemeteries seem to be becoming an outdated idea whose time has come and gone. We once lived in close proximity, rarely travelled great distances, and too often died young, often nearby where we were born. Shorter lives, hope for salvation, continuity and connection, not to mention religious beliefs, encouraged burial.
But today, religion is less [but not un] important, and many places, instead of one or two as was often the case in the past, are associated with individual lives. Not so long ago it might have been said, “John Smith of High Falls.” Today it’s much less likely. The significance of burial declines as our world changes.
But if the need for cemeteries is declining, the desire to be remembered is not. The means to send along our spirits and the details of our lives are increasingly possible in other ways that can be subtly infused into ongoing life. Toward that end, I’m suggesting to the Village and Town of New Paltz that, within the community, there be simple flat references to the remembered. For in death they can add something to life.
This is not to be a burial place but rather the integration of those who live with the memories of those who have. Their stories would link through computers and cell phones to web pages and the stories of individuals and families whose names and dates you see and randomly stop to wonder about. In time, the narrator may be the person whose reference you stand before. In other cases, a volunteer, historian, or a son or daughter might write the story. And in some cases many people might write about an individual. Said another way, this would be Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology updated.
This idea I call Frenz Path, a physical plan and an accessible database, the odd spelling a way to easily identify the website that anchors this project. If I’m right, this concept, which would begin in New Paltz, bolstered with the ideas and suggestions of an interested public and committed volunteers, could turn these words on paper into a living plan that enriches the community and someday reaches across the country, and perhaps around the world, as an example of what a fresh approach to historical memory can be. Could it be that the community with the oldest continuously occupied street in America could also be home to a fresh approach to the integration of lived and living life? I think so.
Such projects might move some land from taxable to non-taxable categories on the town and village rolls, but this project, in many scenarios, could and should remain on the tax rolls and raise money for the community through the sale of place markers that eventually substantially replace burials. In both the village and town of New Paltz, between tax-exempt trusts securing ever-larger green tracts and the University enveloping the community, the taxable area has been significantly reduced.
Frenz Path would raise money for New Paltz through the charging of $1,000 [including some portion for continuing maintenance] plus the actual cost of flat markers. Online databases accessible from cell phones, iPads and computers will make it possible to stop before a name and connect to this person’s story, be it their own words or a story told by others. These stories, containing photographs and images, could be both listened to or read.
Cemeteries are a logical starting point. And if they do the work, they also receive the revenue, in effect free to those who have passed away, paid in future by those who join this continuum. If done as part of Huguenot Street or the Huguenot Historical Society, they too would receive the income. If other entities emerge, they also could find a place in this idea.
It is inevitable that the relationship between those who have lived and those who live today will change. We stand in the twilight of the age of burials. The future will be different, and it seems New Paltz, with its deep commitment to history, can perhaps make some history of its own developing this project.
And as to the sons and daughters of New Paltz, beyond names and dates, perhaps categories and professions, be they educators, historians, printers, doctors, or whatever, they will be broadly searchable by name and category in the Frenz Path database and, on demand, spring to life to tell us their stories. I think both Bill Heidgerd and Peter Force would approve and if this project comes to fruition their stories will be among the first to be told.
Time will tell.
This August I turn seventy and am giving gifts in my parent’s names (Adelaide Katherine and Thomas Craig McKinney) to the Huguenot Historical Society, the New Paltz Cemetery, the Elting Memorial Library and on behalf of the development of the project known as the Mill Brook Preserve. With respect to the Mill Brook Preserve (a large tract of land purchased by the municipality to be used only for passive recreation), my hope is the land involved will include a connection to Manheim Boulevard where I grew up.