By Bonnie Cavanaugh
The culmination of years of work and planning came to fruition in late October as the township officially marked the 300th anniversary of the Whippany Burying Yard.
The Hanover Township Landmark Commission coordinated the three-day event, which ran from Sat., Oct. 20 through Mon., Oct. 22. Years of preparations have ranged from getting the burying yard listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, to having hundreds of headstones cleaned and repaired over the last two years. Many of the 400 markers predate the creation of the United States.
The three-day event launched with an Oct. 20 “gathering” of descendants, local political leaders, and state and national historical experts at the First Presbyterian Church on Rte. 10. It was followed an Oct. 21 guided tour of the burying yard, and an Oct. 22 slideshow presentation. The commission has for the last two years also celebrated the Fourth of July holiday with a service at the graveyard, which hosts some 11 soldiers of the American Revolution.
Commission Chair Michael J. Czuchnicki, who coordinated the events and acted as master of ceremonies for the gathering, noted, “The people resting there, who built America, have families here today.” That included members of the Richards, Bigelow, Kitchel, Tuttle, Cooper, Ward, Flatt and Vail families.
The gathering of officials and families was planned to be reminiscent of an historical local gathering that became a part of American history, Czuchnicki explained. When Keturah Tuttle Flatt died in 1850 at the age of 86, family members came from near and far to attend her funeral. Many of them were also in their 80s, and had either been part of the American Revolution, or had a story to tell.
This inspired a distant relative, Pastor Joseph Tuttle, to begin an oral history project to record as many of the survivors’ stories as possible. He eventually turned these revolutionary memories into the book, “Annals of Morris County,” and spent 50 years researching and writing historical accounts of the region.
Originally called the Whippanong Burying Yard, the cemetery is the oldest in north central New Jersey. The first person buried there was a 61-year-old widower, John Richards, who came to Whippany in 1717 from Newark, after having a lost a daughter in the French and Indian War.
Richards deeded this tract of land, of about four acres, to his friends and neighbors in Sept. 1718 for public use as a meeting place, or church, a school, a militia training ground and a burying yard. Richards died only months later in Dec. 1718, leading historians to speculate whether he knew that he was fatally ill in when he deeded the land.
The last plot at the burying yard belongs to the widow of one of the township’s longtime leaders, former mayor and state legislator Art Albohn. His bride, Regina Albohn, 94, has the distinction of becoming the cemetery’s final resident. She attended Saturday’s “gathering” brunch.
The late Albohn, who passed in 2008, supported and sponsored environmental initiatives regarding recycling and open space preservation. A staunch conservative, he allegedly earned the nickname “Dr. No” for voting “no” on excessive spending more than any other legislator.
“There was not a stick of furniture in the house,” she says. Her children went off to school, and her husband went off to work, leaving her to settle the home. “Then the doorbell rang. It was the minister of the church.” The family accepted his invitation to visit on the following Sunday and have remained members since, she says.
Hanover Twp. Mayor Ronald F. Francioli was also in attendance for the gathering, as were Rev. Sarah Cairatti of the First Presbyterian Church; Morris County Freeholder Christine Myers, whom the Trump administration appointed regional advocate for the U.S. Small Business Administration, beginning at the end of her current term this year; former township Mayor Leonardo Fariello, who maintains a web site on the history of Whippany and the burying yard; Amy. E. Curry, executive director of the Morris County Historical Society; Jude M. Pfister, chief of cultural resources for the Morristown National Historical Park; Township Historian Donald Kiddoo, and, Robert W. Craig, a historian who runs the National Register for Historic Places for the state of N.J.
Craig was largely responsible for having the burying yard included in the National Register. It’s rare for a cemetery to have such a distinction, he says. The Register is “gradually listing cemeteries based on criteria considerations.” These include seven factors that determine “historic integrity,” according to the register web site which are location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.
So far only 15 cemeteries have met this criteria, Craig says, adding that he has been working with archaeology to find some of the older cemeteries in the state, and has added the use of ground penetrating radar to seek out a cemetery’s original footprint.
Even rarer yet, the Whippany Burying Yard has been included in the Winter 2018 issue of “Preservation,” a national magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Craig notes. The story reveals how the landmark committee secured funds to restore numerous headstones prior to this year’s tercentennial celebration.
Czuchnicki secured nearly $100,000 over the past few years for the restoration project from the township committee and the county.