Text by Carl Oechsner, Photographs by Howie Meyers
Cemeteries are a record of our nation’s past. There is a rich collection of history located on their grounds. Here in our village we are fortunate to have fantastic examples of period gravestones dating back to the 1700s. Bethel Cemetery is a most charming space, located in the virtual center of our community, surrounded by our schools, library and neighborhoods. Residents pass by and through it on a daily basis making it a part of our village.
The following is a work-in-progress, adapted from a presentation given at the Croton Free Library. We are still researching a number of interesting questions. Are Native Americans and African American slaves buried within the confines of Bethel? Was there ever a Potter’s Field for indigent individuals? Should you have any information, questions or comments regarding Bethel, please contact us. We would love to hear from you.
An American colonist, reincarnated and walking through the streets of Croton today, would be hard put to find anything he recognized except the old Village burying ground. There he would see stones he knew, still grouped by family and bearing familiar names and verses.
What is the meaning of the designs carved on gravestones? This question is often asked by both the interested layman and the serious student of gravestone art. A great deal of casual speculation and scholarly research has been devoted to finding answers.
Winged skulls with blank staring eyes and a grin. A common epitaph would be “Behold and see as you pass by, as you are now so once was I, as I am now you soon will be, prepare for death and follow me.” Slate, which was soft and easy to carve with a hammer and chisel, was the common stone. Bethel does not have any gravestones carved during this time period.
Winged angels, flower designs and flowing poetry. Red sandstone, mostly carried as ballast on ships plying the Hudson River from the Connecticut River and New Jersey, was used. A few remain here.
By the time these stones were carved, most customers favored granite and marble over sandstone. Here the shape is a plain rectangular tablet, recalling an ancient Greek upright slab or pillar or stone. Memorials became less decorative with emphasis shifting to written inscriptions.
At this time a strong interest in neoclassic art was evident in American architecture, painting and other decorative arts. In cemetery art the change in motifs was striking. The most popular themes became the neoclassic urn and willow which were carved in every conceivable variation with columns, tassels, banners, drapery, and occasional mourning figures weeping over the urns and under the willows.
The first record of Bethel Chapel is Freeborn Garretson’s journal for Sunday, March 10, 1793. After staying at the Croton Manor House, Garretson reports, “I preached in the new church to a few.”
Francis Asbury, who became the first bishop of the Methodist Church in America in 1784 and founded the Methodist system of circuit-riding, preached at Bethel in 1795, 1812 and 1817.
- “A light from our household is gone, a voice we loved is stilled, a place is vacant in our home that never can be filled.”
- “Short was my time, the longer my rest, God took me hence as he thought it best.”
- “This lovely bud so young, so fair, called home by early doom, just came home to show how sweet a flower in paradise would bloom.”