The Church Grounds are one of the most historic, fascinating, and yet easily overlooked sections of the Albany Rural Cemetery. This section was established in the late 1860s to accommodate graves transferred from the State Street Burying Grounds (now Washington Park).
Established in 1800, State Street Burying Grounds were divided into sections for the use of various churches throughout Albany, including the Dutch Reformed, St. Peter’s Episcopal, Society of Friends, and African Methodist Episcopal. Some of the graves had actually been moved to the Burying Grounds from older churchyards, family graveyards, and smaller municipal burial grounds with some of the headstone predating establishment of the State Street Burying Grounds by more than a century.
After the opening of the new Rural Cemetery in 1844, the Burying Grounds fell into disrepair and the Albany Common Council obtained permission from the various congregations to have the burials removed to the Rural Cemetery. Inscriptions were copied from the gravestones and published by the Council, then the bodies were exhumed, placed in new coffins, and transported to the Rural Cemetery where they were reburied in a large lot obtained for this purpose. The gravestones were also transported to the Cemetery and arranged in rows by congregation. Some headstones, unfortunately, were damaged or illegible and difficult to match with the original remains and at least a few were lost during the transfer.
Because of its location and layout, the Church Grounds can be easily missed by a casual visitor to Albany Rural Cemetery. It lies deep within the at the end of the Middle Ridge, almost at the western edge of the Cemetery and adjacent to Beth Emeth Cemetery. At one time, this was actually the limit of the Cemetery and marked by the Western Lodge which was long since been demolished as the Cemetery expanded to over four times its original size of one hundred acres. Lying just beyond the intersection of Middle Ridge and Linden Avenues, it can easily be mistaken for an empty meadow as the majority of the markers are laid flat and not visible from a distance.
Despite a somewhat obscure location, the Church Grounds lot is one of the most fascinating in the Rural Cemetery. It contains fine examples of 17th and 18th-century funerary art, including a variety of soul effigies, as well as beautiful examples of willow and urn motifs. And the burials here are some of the most historic and oldest in the Albany area, ranging from some of the city’s earliest Dutch settler to slaves, soldiers, mayors, architects, and even an Oneida sachem.
Because the headstones were laid flat, they have greater exposure to damaging elements than upright marks and many of them have no fared well. A number of monuments are broken, portions of them have become embedded in the earth, and many are badly eroded with inscriptions are rapidly becoming illegible.
This blog is the first step in a personal project to photograph and document this valuable and tangible, but too often overlooked aspect of local history.