Hamden’s State Street Cemetery abandoned, in disrepair, but group formed to help
HAMDEN >> As she was growing up on Fenway Drive, Chelsea Wood played with other neighborhood children among the tombstones in the nearby State Street Cemetery.
“It always looked spooky, even back then,” the now-Branford resident recalled of the cemetery that had graves dating back to the 18th century. “It would have been a good setting for a horror movie.”
Now, decades later, the cemetery has been abandoned with no known owner or anyone affiliated with its former board of trustees. And, as occurred with the Hamden Plains Cemetery several years ago, the State Street Cemetery’s dilapidated condition has caught the attention of residents who are working to clean it up and looking for someone to step forward to claim a connection to the burial grounds.
After a clean-up held in April, the cemetery looked much better, said Wood, who drives by it almost every weekend when she returns to visit her family members who still lives there. And she is glad to hear that people are concerned, she said.
“There are very old graves there - we used to try to find the oldest grave,” she said. “I didn’t think much about it then, but now I realize that it is a historic place. I’m glad there are people who care and want to make sure it’s taken care of.”
“Right now we are trying to find plot owners - people who own plots at the cemetery,” said local attorney Daniel Ioime, who, with a handful of other residents, formed the Friends of the State Street Cemetery group, “because then what can happen is they can reconstitute an association and get it up and running again.”
But that’s proven to be challenging, Ioime said.
“So far, we have been unsuccessful in finding plot owners,” he said.
He said now they are looking for people who have relatives buried in the cemetery at 2125 State St.. The online tax records for the site list only “State Street Cemetery” was the owner of the site.
“The next step would be to identify individuals who have lineal descendents who are buried there, and maybe they can reconstitute the association and redo the bylaws just to get perpetual care for the cemetery, so someone has authority to take care of it,” he said.
To that end, Ioime’s son Quinton created statestreetcemetery.com, a website about the cemetery that promotes its resurrection. The oldest plot dates back to 1784, according to the site. The cemetery was moved to State Street in 1855 and is the final resting place to several Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers, as well as William James Linton, a noted artist and wood engraver who died in 1897.
“There are so many historic people buried there,” Daniel Ioime said, which is another reason they are working to make sure the cemetery is maintained.
A few years ago, a man came before the Historic Properties Commission, on which Ioime sits, asking for help in getting the cemetery cleaned up, Ioime said.
“His family members were buried there and the cemetery wasn’t being taken care of and he didn’t know who to contact,” Ioime said.
It was then that people began to notice the site’s deteriorated condition and realized that there was no one overseeing its maintenance, he said.
“The commission got involved and found out the association was defunct,” he said.
They also discovered that a familiar name had been involved with the cemetery in recent years — the man who was sued in 2008 by then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal for financial improprieties regarding the Hamden Plains Cemetery on Circular Avenue.
Randy Guevin, owner of Christensen Cemetery Maintenance LLC, was claiming to be the caretaker of the State Street Cemetery, Ioime said.
“He really had no authority” at the cemetery, Ioime said, but was burying people there up until the early 2010s.
“He portrayed himself to be the caretaker of the cemetery and he told people he had the authority to bury people, but really he didn’t because there was no association as far as we can tell,” he said.
Even if he were in some way affiliated with the cemetery, he still didn’t have the authority to authorize burials or collect payments, Ioime said.
“Having only one person on the board of trustees is really not enough,” he said. “We have never even seen the bylaws of the association. His mother claimed to be on the board of trustees of the association, but we don’t know if that was true. But even if it was, he wouldn’t have authority to bury people. He would have to be an employee of the association.”
Blumenthal’s lawsuit, filed in 2008 with the state Department of Consumer Protection, charged that Guevin and his company failed to maintain accurate records of burial plot placements, neglected to file legally necessary documents with the registrar of vital statistics and failed to maintain cemetery grounds at the Hamden Plains Cemetery. Since then, Guevin has left the state, Ioime said. He could not be located for comment.
“We are not sure why he left the state...,” Ioime said. “He also was the caretaker for the Hamden Plains cemetery.”
Also in 2008, the town, with the endorsement of Blumenthal and former Mayor Craig Henrici, formed a temporary Legislative Council committee to address the Hamden Plains Cemetery situation, which was similar to what has become of the State Street Cemetery — the inability to locate graves and a severe lack of maintenance.
But soon the situation at Hamden Plains grew worse, with the town facing lawsuits from the relatives of those buried there who couldn’t find their relatives graves and experienced damage and vandalism to tombstones. It was years before the issue of maintenance there was rectified and a cemetery association took over management of the cemetery. Even though in that case, there were two members of the cemeteries board of directors involved in the effort, the complications of the situation were long and drawn out.
Because of that experience, the town won’t get involved with the efforts to address issues at the State Street Cemetery, Ioime said.
“Unfortunately, the only way we have been able to do it is without the town’s involvement,” he said of the volunteer’s efforts. “The town doesn’t want to get involved with this because of what happened with Hamden Plains, because it would be the same type of situation with the possibility of the town getting sued for some reason.”
But the town has contributed some to cleaning it up, Ioime said, thanks to legislation supported by former House Speaker Brendan Sharkey and current state Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-91, that allows municipalities to clean up abandoned cemeteries without assuming any liability. The state Neglected Cemetery Account Grant Program, established in 2014, allows municipalities to apply for grants up to $2,000.00 for “reclamation and maintenance of neglected cemeteries,” the state website says. Municipalities can submit one application a year and awards are made on a first-come, first-served basis until the account is exhausted, the site notes.
“There’s grants that the town has applied for and gotten that gives them funds to go in and clean it up, and that has been a huge help,” Ioime said. “But the town won’t take over the cemetery. We wanted to set up a committee, but that’s what happened at Hamden Plains. People don’t know where people are buried there. There are unmarked graves and we don’t have records where those graves are. You can have a descendent who gets upset, and we don’t have people who are in charge.”
Ruth Shapleigh-Brown, executive director of the Connecticut Gravestone Network, said that across the state there are at least 1,000 abandoned or neglected cemeteries.
Though the town doesn’t want to play a role in resurrecting the cemetery’s association, but has utilized the state Neglected Cemetery Account Grant Program to help with maintenance, said Julie Smith, who until recently was Mayor Curt Balzano Leng’s chief administrative officer and is now the Director of Recreation and Culture.
The program “relieves municipalities, municipal employees, and agents and officers of municipalities from criminal or civil liability for undertaking the care and maintenance of a neglected cemetery,” according to the state Office of Policy and Management’s website. Fees charged for death certificates by the state Department of Public Health fund the account. Municipalities that have taken advantage of the program include the town of Easton, which received a grant to go toward the upkeep of four town cemeteries, including Union Cemetery, home of the fabled “White Lady” ghost.
“It’s not a big grant - it’s about $2,000,” Smith said. “It allows us get landscaping done. It’s a nice way for town to do something so it doesn’t fall into disrepair, but the burden doesn’t fall to taxpayers.”
The town wants to avoid situations such as what played out with Hamden Plains Cemetery, Smith said, which resulted in lawsuits against the town, which cost the taxpayers money to defend. “It’s not fair to ask towns to take on the added responsibility for caring for what is really private property,” she said. “It is a problem.”
Shapleigh-Brown said it is important to note that there is a difference between abandoned cemeteries or burial grounds, which are neither recognized nor taken care of, as “totally forgotten” and lacking any attention for years, and neglected sites, which means they are not properly taken care of but in some case towns are mowing the site once or twice a year.
State law says that a town “may” take care of the sites, but many choose not to, she said, noting “We have been arguing that for years.”
“We have plenty of cemeteries that are so overgrown and forgotten,” she said.
Connecticut has no consistency throughout the state as to how cemetery care is run for many sites, and the state fund runs out quickly, she said.
“People have to band together and care,” Shapleigh-Brown said.
In Hamden, the volunteers, led by Scott Howell, who has sat on several town boards and commissions, and resident Linda Currie, formed the Friends of the State Street Cemetery. They hold cleanups in the fall and the spring, but beyond that their ability to effect change at the cemetery is limited, Ioime said. That authority would fall on a cemetery association or a board of trustees, he said, with connections to the cemetery, which is why they are anxious to find anyone connected to the cemetery to get an association again up and running.
“Ideally, we want to find plot owners, but the odds are most of these plots were sold decades ago,” he said. So alternatively, they’re looking for anyone with relatives buried at the cemetery, he said.
Tony Greco, who has researched the history of the State Street property, as is one of the volunteers focused on maintenance at the site, said this “is a short-term process.”
I would hope ideally that at some point someone will take over the administration and start to take over the maintenance,” Greco said.
“It has some very historical value,” he said.
Anyone with a plot there, with a relative there or with information about the location of graves can contact Ioime and Howell via the statestreetcemetery.com website. The site notes the cemetery also has been “known over the years as East Farms Cemetery at Potter Town and The South Side Cemetery.”
“We are just trying to help out, to find a way to get perpetual care for the cemetery, to make sure it’s kept up, the tombstones and the fence maintained, so that it’s cared for,” Ioime said. “We don’t want any more burials there — there shouldn’t be any more burials because we don’t know where people are buried there to begin with. It is probably going to take years to resolve to get into a situation where we could get perpetual care for it.”