While solemnity may be the top priority of all cemeteries, that hallowed ground serving as a final resting place for lost loved ones can often have plenty more to offer.
“There is certainly a lot of wonderful history to be explored in a cemetery, and it can also be a great place to just go and enjoy nature and clear your mind in the middle of a city,” said Patti Martin Bartsche, managing editor for American Cemetery and Cremation, a trade magazine based in New Jersey. “It’s a great place to get outdoors and just kind of stop and take a breath, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The solemnity, the history and the nature all blend together perfectly in an urban setting at Schenectady’s Vale Cemetery, which earlier this month received the ACE (American Cemetery Excellence) Award, given annually since 2012 by American Cemetery and Cremation. And along with those first three elements, you can add a healthy dose of neighborhood spirit.
“We are very community-minded here at Vale Cemetery,” said Gordon Zuckerman, president of the group’s board of directors for nearly three years now. “We’ve tried to make it safer by putting up more lights and cameras. When the parks were closed because of COVID, people could come here and stroll with their baby carriages and enjoy the nature, the outdoors, our urban garden, and feel safe. We are open to the community, and people recognize that.”
Created in 1857 in what was then the eastern edge of Schenectady, Vale Cemetery by the 1990s was in the middle of the city and dealing with its own financial troubles. An enthusiastic group of civic-minded citizens, however, jumped into action.
Behind the efforts of Dr. Bernie McEvoy, his wife Barbara, and a host of other people, including Ruth Bergeron, Katherine Delain, Katherine Green and State Street Presbyterian Church Rev. Bob Smith, they not only spruced up the cemetery but also reinvigorated the whole neighborhood. In 2005, a year after Vale Cemetery and Vale Park – a 35-acre section of land just west of the cemetery – were added to the National Register of Historic Places, an $8.5 million revitalization project rehabbed many old homes in the area. It was named Vale Village.
As Bartsche wrote in announcing the 2020 ACE Award recipient, the cemetery’s impact on the neighborhood was a big part of why it was recognized.
“Vale has been creative in finding solutions to obstacles, responsible in identifying new revenue streams, forward thinking in serving families and responsive to the needs of the community.”
Bartsche repeated that line of thought when she spoke to The Gazette last week.
“They are always finding ways to engage with the community, and they have a number of individuals who give freely of their time and their knowledge to make it a better place,” she said. “They are very proud of their cemetery, and they’re not about to let their problems define them. They just go to work looking for solutions to make it the best it can be.”
Winning the ACE Award according to McEvoy, who along with his wife, Barbara, were named patroons of the city in 2011 for their preservation work, is a real feather in Vale’s cap. The 2019 winner was Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the most historic cemeteries in the country whose list of notables include poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr.
“Mount Auburn, the previous year’s winner, has something like a $125 million endowment, so to be recognized like that and to be included among the most prestigious cemeteries in the country is fantastic,” said McEvoy. “It’s like going from playing sandlot ball to the New York Yankees.”
Vale also offers its 45 funeral homes in nine counties around upstate New York options like “green burials,” and the ability to be buried with a pet.
While the names on Vale’s burial list may not be as impressive as those on Mount Auburn’s, it still packs quite a punch, especially in the scientific realm. Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the “Wizard of Schenectady,” and Ernst Alexanderson, the individual most responsible for the development of television, are just two among the many prominent GE scientists interred at Vale. There are also politicians, physicians and veterans from all generations, and another unique aspect of Vale is a section called the African American Burial Ground, formerly referred to as the “Colored Plot.”
Visitors to Vale often come away from the cemetery having discovered some new nugget of fascinating history.
“I was surprised to find the grave of Clarissa Putman, one-time paramour of Sir John Johnson, and star of John Vrooman’s classic novel, ‘Clarissa Putman of Tribes Hill,’ buried at Vale,” said Schenectady City Historian Chris Leonard. “When I read the book as a child, I thought she was a fictitious, amalgam character.”
And like most people who stop at Vale, Leonard enjoys everything about the place.
“It is so much more than a cemetery,” he said. “It’s a sanctuary in the middle of a major city, a wildlife refuge, a Level 1 arboretum, an urban farm, a place for running, biking, bird-watching and quiet contemplation. I’ve been entranced by the place since I first stopped by the caretaker’s home to do research.” (The 15-kilometer Stockade-athon road race, held annually in November with more than 1,000 runners, winds through Vale toward the end of the race.)
The McEvoys’ initial involvement with Vale came nearly 20 years ago now when they were part of a group determined to save the caretaker’s house.
“The health department wanted to put a clinic right there with a big parking lot,” said Barbara McEvoy. “We’ve stayed involved because we love the place. We get a lot of compliments about how nice the place looks. That makes us feel very good.”
2019 – Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
2018 – Calumet Park Cemetery, Merrillville, Indiana.
2017 – Holy Cross Cemetery & Mausoleum, North Arlington, N.J.
2016 – Rose Hills Memorial Park, Orange County, California.
2015 – Curlew Memory Gardens, Palm Harbor, Florida.
2014 – Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York.
2013 – Springvale Botanical Cemetery, Victoria, Australia.
2012 – East Lawn Memorial Park, Sacramento, California.