In the mid-1980s, the movie Ironweed was filmed in and around Albany, New York. Several scenes were shot in the Albany Rural Cemetery and neighboring Saint Agnes Cemetery. Having a movie with stars like Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep shot in Albany was, of course, big news and local television stations did features spotlighting some of the filming. One of those news segments gave me my first glimpse of the Albany Rural Cemetery and that began my fascination with this beautiful and historic place. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed exploring its hills and hidden paths and, last year, began a blog featuring photos of its many notable monuments.
In the past year or so, I’ve taken an interest in the area known as the Church Grounds. It is a section which I had visited in the past, but I had never really looked closely at the seemingly dull rows of old gravestones. But when I took the time to look closer, I realized these stones were some of the oldest and most historically significant in the Albany area.
Laid in these plain rows are the graves of some of Albany’s earliest settlers, excellent examples of early American funerary art, and touching epitaphs. Each stone has not just a name, but a story behind it, though some may be impossible to discover. Even when the stones were first transferred to the Rural Cemetery, some were in poor condition or lost or simply could not be matched to the original burial.
Unfortunately, any of the stones have weathered badly, broken, or partially sunk into the earth. They are often obscured by grass and field ivy, covered with thick grass clippings from the mowers (which, sadly, sometimes drive on the stones leaving tracks across them and further damaging them).
There are very few tangible pieces of Albany’s earliest history left. Of Albany’s colonial past, in particular, there is very little. The archeological site of the city’s first permanent settlement, Fort Orange, lies buried beneath modern highway ramps. Of Albany’s earliest churches, none of the original buildings remain (though the Old Dutch Church retains its original pulpit and weather-vane in a later edifice). Only a scant handful of 18th-century houses have survived.
But there are gravestones in the Church Grounds that are relics of Albany’s early history. At least two stones can be positively dated to the 1720s. Many names can be matched to biographies in the New York State Museum’s People of Colonial Albany project. Later burials date from the Revolutionary War through the1860s.
The intent of this project will be to better document the Church Grounds section by photographing the gravestones, transcribing the inscriptions (in some cases, where the stones are too worn, it may be impossible to copy even a partial inscription), matching them with the list of transferred burials published by the Albany Common Council in 1866 (initial research shows that not all of the headstones were included in this inventory), and further matching them with other historic resources. (such as censuses, wills, and other records).