Saturday, June 28, 2014

Summer Shore Cemeteries

Ah, the Jersey shore in summer! I had my family at Long Beach Island for five days in mid-June and the weather was glorious. Beach, sun, pool, everything was perfect (except for the ticket I got for not wearing my seat belt) – the only thing missing was a trip to a graveyard!

I’m sure I’m one of a select few people who think of such things while on vacation. To make it easier on my wife and four-year-old daughter, I usually head out early before they wake up. So I planned a sunrise trip up the island and over to the mainland to hit the Staffordville Cemetery near Tuckerton (across the bay from LBI).

I’ve photographed a few cemeteries in this area but had never been to Staffordville Cemetery. Other than its simple existence on a map, I could find nothing about it on the Internet. So I made the trip on a Monday morning, shortly after sunrise. Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean can be breathtaking, but of course, I missed it. Got to the beach at 6 a.m. and sunrise must have been 5:30. So I jumped into my wife’s Toyota RAV4 and headed north up the island. Cops all over the place here trying to nab speeders and folks not wearing seatbelts, so I really had to crawl the five miles or so to the causeway to Manahawkin.

Manahawkin, New Jersey coastline at dawn
The ride was peaceful, not many people about yet. After crossing onto the mainland, Manahawkin, New Jersey is the first major town you get to. If you head north or south on Route 9, there is a cemetery within a half mile either way of the intersection. I’ve been to both in the past, and they are worth the visit: Manahawkin Baptist Cemetery (north) and Greenwood Cemetery (south). Since I was driving past Greenwood, I figured I might stop there on the way back if I had time. Staffordville was about two miles south of here.

I was on the lookout for “Cemetery Road,” as the Staffordville Cemetery appeared (on the map) to be off Route 9 down this road a few blocks. Found the street sign with no problem, though it was almost hidden by all the other signs around it. I drove down the quiet road alongside a trailer park and saw the cemetery at the end. Very unassuming little place. As my grandmother might have said, “it was a small, sad little graveyard.”

This is the pine barrens, as they call it – pine trees and sand. A cemetery sign made out of timber, no gate or fence. One large marble monument to Rev. Samuel Parker’s wife, the rest regular smaller stones. A fenced-in family plot, veterans markers, flags, weather-worn lawn and garden statues, a penny on a headstone. Someone had placed a few stone fragments together in the sand to spell out the words “FATHER HE.”

The graveyard was only about 150 feet deep and 200 feet wide, clean, no trash, no graffiti. Some old Christmas decorations here and there. Old grave markers from the mid-1800s to a few newish ones, including a Vietnam Vet who died in 2006. Some old sea shells adorned a few of the graves. Weird, yellowish-green plant life covered most of the sand.

I began to wonder how many thousands of these small graveyards must exist, and how many thousands of people drive past them without a second thought. These graveyards house tiny memorials to hundreds of thousands of individual lives that have passed. The lives spent in Staffordville, perhaps, may have been spent fishing, farming, sailing – even being a reverend’s wife in the 1850’s. What must that have been like, I wonder, being a reverend’s wife back then?

On my way back to LBI, I did spend some time in Greenwood, a larger and fancier burial ground. The traffic picked up a bit of volume by then, mostly mainlanders going to work Monday morning in Manahawkin or to LBI to work the tourist trade. I would be following them soon, headed back to life after spending a bit of time here with death. These regular drivers probably all know where Greenwood is because of its large wrought iron sign. By the same token, most of them are probably unaware of the existence of the smaller, Staffordville Cemetery. Out of sight, out of mind. Which is why it seems so important to me to hunt down these small, hidden cemeteries. They exist, after all, to honor - and help us remember - the dead.