OLD LYME'S BURIAL PLACES
Indigenous people buried their dead in sacred grounds on the east side of the Connecticut River for thousands of years before English colonists seized that space after the Pequot War in 1637. At today’s Griswold Point and near today’s Watch Rock Preserve, tribal burial grounds honored the remains of those who had gone before.
When the town of Lyme, which separated from Saybrook in 1665, granted land in 1676 to William Measure, its first school master, and set aside one acre on the west side of Duck River for a burying ground, it followed a pattern of burials that reached back thousands of years.
The earliest surviving gravestone in the colonial cemetery is a simple brownstone marker commemorating in 1676 Lt. Renold Marvin, a local militia officer for whom the Lieutenant River was named. The next surviving gravestone, dating from 1690, commemorates Ruth Noyes, daughter of a wealthy New London merchant and wife of Lyme’s first minister. The third oldest gravestone at Duck River marks the burial place in 1696 of Capt. Joseph Sill, a noted “Indian fighter.” The burial sites of other prominent members of the early community, like John Huntley (1676), Richard Ely (1684), Balthazar DeWolf (1696), and Matthew Griswold (1698) have not been found. These and other early colonists were likely buried on their farmland.
The town’s second oldest burying ground adjoined the original meetinghouse, built ca. 1670, three years after the town was officially named, on a hill rising east of Duck River. A road from the meetinghouse to Duck River was laid out in 1683, and a “highway,” today’s Johnny Cake Hill Road, was laid out in 1698. The earliest surviving gravestone in the Meetinghouse Hill Cemetery commemorates the death in 1696 of John Lay, a farmer and large landowner whose dwelling house stood nearby.
Two successive meetinghouses were built close to the hillside cemetery, which remained active until 1847. After the town’s third meetinghouse burned in 1815, an elegant new church was built in a field beside the coaching inn Parsons Tavern, the site of the First Congregational Church today.
The burial of Lyme residents in Duck River Cemetery became more frequent after 1700. Gravestones commemorating Henry Champion (1704), Phebe Marvin (1707), Wollston Brockway (1707), Edward DeWolf (1712), Luce Sill (1715), and Rev. Moses Noyes (1727) help map the history of the early community. Duck River’s Ancient Section is the site of about 800 burials and includes the graves of 44 Revolutionary War veterans.
Records and deeds preserved in the OLCA’s archives show the evolution of the Duck River burial site, on land where Native people had hunted and fished for centuries before English colonists cleared tracts for crops and livestock on the east side of the Connecticut River in the 1650s.
An early survey of the burying ground in 1718 shows that it included one acre of land with a pent, or fenced, highway leading to it. The “pent Highway beginning at the Cross lane, [was] two rods Wide bounded with stakes & stones by them close to the fence.” Town meeting records note a vote in March 1720 “that Thomas Enis shall have 4 pounds for clearing the land for the burying place by Duck River.”
Half a century later in 1774, a half-acre strip on the west side of the original burying place was added. A rough sketch showing that additional strip appears in an agreement between Richard McCurdy, a lawyer and gentleman farmer who inherited the mansion house of his father John McCurdy on today’s Lyme Street, and his neighbor Samuel Mather Jr., a prosperous merchant and ship owner who built today’s Congregational Church parsonage. Their agreement specifies responsibilities for a fence between their adjoining properties. It also notes that Richard McCurdy and his heirs would continue to “improve the Burying Ground in the manner he has hereto done.”
Plans for a New Burying Ground at Duck River, with squares measuring 16 x 18 feet and walks seven feet wide, were laid out in the summer of 1843. An account book listing Expenses on New Burying Ground includes drafts of $3.83 to L. Lester for “ditching round [the] Meadow” and $29.65 to W. Beckwith for “Posts & labor on fences.”
Richard McCurdy financed the expenses for what would later be called the Victorian Section, and in 1858 his son Charles J. McCurdy agreed to sell to Almon Bacon and Israel Matson, soon to become directors of OLCA, “an acre and a quarter adjoining the present burying ground near Duck River in Old Lyme and to grade and lay out into burial lots said land . . . and to fence, build causeway, and otherwise, improve and beautify said ground and the adjoining burying ground.”
Charles McCurdy, a distinguished lawyer, diplomat, and Connecticut’s Lieutenant Governor from 1847 to 1849, became the founding President of OLCA in 1860, charged with making “a more respectable Burying Ground than the one now used.”
An effort to transform burial grounds into places of beauty and dignity, called the Rural Cemetery Movement, had started in 1831 with the opening of the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, and its ideals influenced mid-nineteenth century plans for expanding and improving the burying ground at Duck River. Obelisks and larger, more elaborate gravestones, previously erected, became fashionable in Old Lyme.
Following the death of his father in 1857, Charles McCurdy took possession of the ancestral farm. His deed granting an acre and a quarter to OLCA in 1861 reflects his commitment to cemetery enhancement. The deed specifies that, whereas the OLCA was “about to commence grading and fencing and making other improvements upon the old and new parts of the Burying Ground,” he would provide within two years “a good sufficient covered stone drain across said land so as to carry off the water passing over the same.” He would also cause “said lot of land to be handsomely graded and handsomely fenced, on the south and west sides.”
The deed further specifies that the tract between the Burying Ground and the highway, today called McCurdy Road, would never be used “other than for agricultural purposes nor have any buildings of any kind erected thereon.” Today that plot remains open space, with only a flag pole erected in 1983 on what had formerly been the McCurdy family’s meadow. The handsome fence still borders the Victorian Section, where stately obelisks, reflecting a taste for grander, more imposing monuments than those in the Ancient Section, commemorate both Almon Bacon and Israel Matson, OLCA’s founding directors.
Old Lyme’s original burying place continued to expand over the next century to meet the needs of the growing community. In 1889 the town built a bridge to connect the old cemetery with acreage east of Duck River, now called the Middle Section. After the town voted in 1915 “to turn over the care of the Cemetery east of Duck River to the OLCA and to appropriate $100 for the upkeep,” it contracted with Charles R. Noyes in 1925 to replace the earlier bridge.
The OLCA later purchased land north of Duck River’s Victorian Section to create the Lily Pond Section that opened in 1962, then additional property that includes the cedar-lined granite ridge of the Gates Section, where a number of Lyme Art Colony painters are buried. The Meadow Ridge Section opened in 1990 with a stone terrace for cremation burials, and the Ledges Section, acquired in 2016, provides space for 700 ongoing burials.
The Duck River Cemetery’s history spans three and a half centuries, and in the years ahead the town’s original burying place will continue to reflect the needs and concerns of the community. Today additional Old Lyme burial plots are available in the Laysville Cemetery, where gravestones date to 1751, and the Point o’Woods Cemetery, formerly called Champion Cemetery #1, where gravestones date to 1776.
The Griswold Cemetery on the scenic east bank of the Black Hall River remains active, but burial is restricted to family members. Among the notable persons commemorated there are Connecticut governor Roger Griswold, Civil War veteran Capt. John Griswold who died at Antietam, renowned packet ship captains Augustus Henry Griswold and his brother Robert Harper Griswold, and the founder of the Lyme Art Colony, Florence Griswold. Smaller family cemeteries in Black Hall and South Lyme are maintained by the OLCA but no longer active.