Montgomery County

Cemetery marks 130th as a gentle place to be

Alfred McKinlay has been around VanVechten Cemetery for more than 50 years.

Alfred McKinlay has been around VanVechten Cemetery for more than 50 years.

Someday, he’ll be in the place every day. The 83-year-old McKinlay has already purchased a lot inside the country cemetery in the Montgomery County town of Florida, about three miles west of Pattersonville.

McKinlay’s gravestone is in place, and his name and birth year of 1929 are already carved in the granite. “We try not to speculate,” McKinlay said, of the numbers that will eventually complete the marker.

The longtime Florida resident and other members of the VanVechten Cemetery Association are hoping other people speculate about their futures. Newcomers to the cemetery will ensure the survival of the historic, three-acre park off McDougall Road. Prospective customers are invited to walk around the monuments on the verdant hill and make themselves at home.

“Everybody who comes up here comments on how nice an area it is,” said McKinlay, a former General Electric manufacturing engineer who served as cemetery superintendent from 1961 until 2012. “It’s just the ambience.”

“I think a lot of people come up just to sit and visit, even if they don’t have someone buried there,” added McKinlay’s daughter, Ava Douglass, secretary-treasurer of the cemetery association.

A long tradition

The cemetery is observing its 130th anniversary this year. But those years include just its history as a public cemetery. The first funeral services took place in 1778, when the cemetery was the VanVechten family cemetery. Twenty-five family members are buried on the original lot.

By 1883, John and Isabella VanVechten were running the family farm next to the cemetery. And there was a need for final resting spaces. “John VanVechten said, ‘Why don’t we make this a public cemetery?’ ” McKinlay said. “He talked to the farmers and they agreed, that’s what they did.”

VanVechten sold 31⁄4 acres of land to the cemetery association. “I think he got a pretty good deal,” added Douglass. “He sold them for $125 an acre back then.”

In the late 1800s, 65 caskets were exhumed from original plots at the town’s Scotch Church Cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair, and transferred to VanVechten.

That might have been the busiest time at the cemetery. Douglass said during some years, the association won’t make any lot sales. Other years, the group will sell as many as four lots. “One year I sold seven,” McKinlay said. “That was a record.”

Five hundred and seventy one burials have taken place at the cemetery, and about 50 more lots are available before capacity is reached. That’s why the association wants to spread the word now about the breezes that often blow through the elms and pines, the quiet yard and the green spaces. Cemetery expenses are paid through funds raised by lot sales and burials.

Douglass said advantages come with eternity in VanVechten.

“A lot of [cemeteries] now don’t allow any erect stones, you have to put the stones in the ground,” she said. “We don’t have any requirements like that.”

“We’re more liberal than many of the newer … cemeteries in the cities,” McKinlay added.

VanVechten will also consider “green” burials, ecologically-friendly services in which chemicals and caskets are not used. “We haven’t been approached yet, but it’s something we’ll have to consider if we’re asked the question,” Douglass said. “One of the trends that we’re noticing is there are a lot more cremations.”

Ashes of the deceased are buried in the ground. “Or, they have monuments where you just put them in the monument,” Douglass said.

Another advantage to burial in Florida might be the privacy. In larger cemeteries, visitors may see other cars and other people stopping by grave sites. Because of VanVechten’s secluded location and small number of “tenants,” a lone visitor may be the only person inside the place on a given day. Or given week.

Improvements have been made. In recent years, the cemetery association partnered with the Landis Arboretum in Esperance to manicure existing trees and plant new ones. A new road and installation of an American flag and welcoming sign were other parts of the beautification project.

Under the right conditions, the cemetery could expand.

“We haven’t talked about it yet, but it is a possibility,” Douglass said. “Certainly if there was land available — and it would have to be contiguous to land we already own — but if there is some possibility of doing that, I’m sure we’ll discuss it.”

Margaret Leackfeldt has visited the cemetery during many of her 89 years.

“I spent my whole life right next to the cemetery,” she said, adding she used to live in the farmhouse that stands next to the yard. “Grandpa was the superintendent and I attended all the funerals because that was the only social thing in town at the time. And I knew all the people who were being buried. So it was just normal for me to go and nobody thought anything of it that I attended all the funerals.”

stories of the souls

Like any cemetery, there are stories behind the stones. Derick VanVechten, who died in 1847 at age 92, fought in the American Revolution. Other men fought in the Civil War, World War I and II and in Korea.

Some stories remain in the past. Mary E. Buckley, daughter of John and Mary Buckley, died on March 24, 1875 at age 19. Rensalaer Donnan was only two years old when he died on June 15, 1838.

Other stories are more recent. Douglass said a young couple was exploring Florida a few years ago, and visited the cemetery.

“They were just driving around and they happened to see it,” Douglass said. “They drove up in there and just thought it was a beautiful spot.”

The wife passed away at a young age. “He came back and said this was such a beautiful place, and bought a lot,” Douglass said.

Association members say people can learn a little bit about history by just walking through the cemetery. They don’t have to be searching for knowledge; they can also be searching for peace.

“When I walk through a cemetery I just see all my old friends,” Leackfeldt said. “Or all the old family names.”

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