Ridgebury Cemetery takeover is headed to Sept. 27 hearing

Folks have been laying there in eternal rest — dead, to be direct — since before the Count de Rochambeau rode by on his way to help General Washington win the Revolution. And now Ridgebury Cemetery may be given to the town.

The potential transfer of Ridgebury Cemetery to town ownership at no cost to taxpayers will go to a public hearing Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 7:30 in town hall. The hearing will follow — or interrupt — a selectmen’s meeting that starts at 6:30.

“Ridgebury Cemetery is a pre-Revolutionary War Cemetery located at 655 Ridgebury Road,” say documents provided to the Board of Selectmen. “...It comprises three acres and contains over 700 graves with room for at least 100 additional.”

The cemetery is about a tenth of a mile north of Ridgebury Road’s intersection with George Washington Highway and Canterbury Lane, near the Ridgebury Congregational Church.

“It is the final resting place of many Keelers who were among the early settlers of Ridgefield. The first burial, based on inventory of gravestones in 1960, was that of Ruth Smith Keeler in 1734.”

The town would become new owner and operator of Ridgebury Cemetery under a proposal initiated by the Ridgebury Cemetery Association Inc., a nonprofit entity that has managed the cemetery since 1961. The plan was discussed briefly by the selectmen Sept. 6, and before that on June 7. The town’s Graveyard Restoration Committee — volunteers, appointed by the selectmen — would add the Ridgebury Cemetery to the several old graveyards they look after.

Robert Keeler Reynolds, president of the Ridgebury Cemetery Association’s board of directors, is interested in stepping down from his hands-on management position, First Selectman Rudy Marconi told fellow selectmen. He added that the Reynolds family had been affiliated with the cemetery for some 100 years.

Hannah Barber, a member of the town Graveyard Restoration Committee, would take over as the new sexton. Her mother, Donna Barber, is the sexton of St. Mary’s Cemetery.

“It’s just really fascinating,” Barber said when asked why she wanted to be a cemetery sexton. “My mom does it. It’s a lot of history.”

Barber, who has a degree in history from Western Connecticut State University, has been on the Graveyard Restoration Committee since 2012 and is its youngest member. She went to the Association of Gravestone Studies’ 2015 conference in Greenfield, Mass., and attended workshops on gravestone conservation.

It is expected that Maureen Kiernan, treasurer of both the Ridgebury Cemetery Association and the town Graveyard Restoration Committee, would continue to oversee finances.

The cemetery has an endowment of more than $300,000 which would be transferred to the town control, but would remain dedicated to Ridgebury Cemetery’s maintenance and upkeep.

“Right now the interest on the account takes care of the annual operating cost,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the selectmen.

A financial statement from 2015 shows interest income of about $13,000. Expenditures totaled about $7,800, including roughly $5,000 that went to care of the property.

Selectman Steve Zemo asked if some of the endowment, or its income, might help support the other cemeteries that are managed by the graveyard committee.

“It would be strictly for Ridgebury Cemetery,” said Hannah Barber, who attended the selectmen’s meeting.

The 700-odd people buried at Ridgebury Cemetery include 52 veterans of various wars. One is a veteran of King George’s War, 1744-48 before the revolution. Other veterans buried there fought in most major U.S. wars, including: 16 from the Revolution; three from the War of 1812; six from the Civil War; four from World War I; 24 from World War II; and three from the Korean War. “Among the veterans are two African Americans who served in the Civil War,” the cemetery history says, “and Cornelius Ryan, author of several books about World War II including The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far.”

Plots in the cemetery sell for $2,100. The oldest plot deed on record, from 1870, shows someone’s final resting place was acquired for $1.67.