OUR LONG HISTORY
Stonington Cemetery has a long history beginning with the interment of Thomas Cheseborough in 1754 in a family burial plot on the property belonging to William Cheseborogh. This small plot of land existed as a family burying ground for almost 100 years longer. In the mid-19th century, the area was incorporated into a larger public cemetery that is still active.
Today, our 22 acres now hold the remains of Stonington residents from all walks of life, religions, and ethnicity.
Across the street from the original grounds is a five acre field (West Grounds) that extends from North Main Street to Lamberts Cove. It also was part of the farm that was owned first by Chesebroughs, then the Phelps family, and eventually the Paffards from whom the West Grounds was purchased in 2001. Plans are underway to prepare the land for burials.
The Stonington Cemetery was the first incorporated cemetery in New London county and represented a departure from earlier cemeteries where interments were limited to family or church members.
Among the many notable names are the various founders - Williams, Billings, Palmer, Chesebrough, Denison - and more widely known individuals from the 19th century - Nathaniel Palmer and George Washington Whistler.
During the 20th century, Stonington became home to a number of artists and writers who left mark on the arts and chose Stonington Cemetery as their final resting place. They include Stephen Vincent Benet, James Merrill, Grace Zaring Stone, Eleanor Perenyi, John Mason Brown, Osborne Elliott, Bishop Paul Moore, James Houston, Griffith Bailey Coale, and Pati Hill.
You can locate some of these graves using the map in our brochure.
The oldest part of the cemetery - the original Chesebrough/Phelps family plot - is located on a knoll a short distance from the entrance past the Victorian plots of the founders. The original farm house - since expanded - still stands within view. Route 1 bisected the land later during the 20th century.
This early graveyard was typical of family plots in 18th century New England. They reflect the influence of much earlier practices as evidenced by the orientation of the bodies, the irregular organization of graves, and the design of the headstones - portal shaped stones often containing images of winged heads representing the soul departing the body and ascending to heaven. By the beginning of the 19th century burials in this section had become more regular and care was taken to group family members close to each other. Markers reflect the Neoclassical taste of the period - urn & willow motifs, obelisks, and box tombs
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Stonington was becoming a prosperous village enriched by various commercial ventures in banking, shipping, and sealing. Members of several prominent families who had traveled and had visited the new rural cemeteries in Boston, New York, Baltimore and elsewhere decided to create their own cemetery outside the limits of Stonington Borough.
A group of 23 civic-minded men formed a corp-
ration and in 1849 work was begun on a plan designed by George Dallas Stanton. The founders names are engraved on the Atwood Brayton-designed entrance gates. Their names – Chesborough, Williams, Palmer, Billings among others - were well known then and many of the men have descendants living locally today.
The design was reflective of the plans in earlier rural cemeteries These incorporated space for mausoleums and memorial statuary in park like settings. Family plots were organized with wide lanes to accommodate visits by carriage or on foot. Artistic stone masons, sculptors, and glass artists were patronized to build and decorate private memorials. These private statuary landscapes were created and funded by individuals in remembrance of family members, but they were also available for public enjoyment.
In the United States similar cultural landscapes served as precursor to public parks and then later to our national parks.
The first building to be erected was the Gothic style Receiving Tomb intended for the respectful storage of bodies awaiting burial. This was followed by the C.P. Williams monument and then the Albert G. Palmer Mausoleum. In the mid-1880’s, the grand Gothic revival tomb - the Billings Mausoleum - was designed and built under the supervision of the J. R. Lamb Studios. To the rear of the original grounds are the remains of African-American Borough Baptist Church and a potters section where the less fortunate were buried in unmarked graves.
The monuments and tombstones from this period are Victorian in style. Some of the marble works were imported from Italy. Urns, weeping and shrouded women, and obelisks were all fashionable cemetery art of the period. Each carries its own significance. Raised and fenced family plots were separated by wide avenues that provided access for carriages as well as for strolling. The dead were no longer regarded as a spiritual threat to the living. One could visit them without fear of contamination.
Notable burials of this period also include G.W. Whistler, Nathaniel Palmer, and the Denison family in their pie-shaped plot.
Interesting later burials include the Phelps Mausoleum, the Atwood colonnade, and Thomas Powell - an English casualty of the War of 1812.
Throughout the grounds headstones reflect the taste of the period from winged death heads, to vases and veils, to obelisks, to shiny granite markers, and headstones with photographs embedded.
By the end of the 19th century, the taste for garden cemetery design had given way to the memorial park fashion. The Association purchased more land to the east of the original grounds, installed a reflecting pond, and laid out new gravesites in the more modern gridded style. Family plots were less important. Rotary lawn mowers changed cemetery maintenance. Sadly many of the fences were removed from family plots.