Steven Slosberg: So many graves, they wore out a camera

Steven Slosberg: So many graves, they wore out a camera

All Hallows Eve is upon us, and let us all hail an undertaking by two women that some likely would deem haunting but most would laud as undeniably daunting.

For the last seven years, Joanna Case, the retired director of the Mystic & Noank Library, and Judy Hicks, past president of the Mystic River Historical Society and owner the former Village Books in Olde Mistick Village, have been intrepidly inventorying, photographing, and recording for public access, some 20,000 burials on both sides of the Mystic River.

Thus far, they have logged the burials in 13 cemeteries, most of them small family plots, but also including the lovely and sprawling Elm Grove (14,000 burials) just north of Mystic Seaport, and, most recently, Stonington (or Evergreen), at North Main Street and Route 1 in Stonington, another picturesque cemetery, with some 4,500 burials. Stonington Cemetery, lately selected for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, was incorporated in 1849, making it the oldest incorporated cemetery in New London County.

By name, the cemeteries are: Lower Mystic, Crary, Fish, Niles, Packer, Wells, Daniel Burrows, North Burrows, Packer Burrows, South Burrows and Silas Burrows, all on the Groton side of the river, as well as, across the river, Elm Grove and Stonington. Except for the latter two, the body counts, so to speak, in the smaller cemeteries range from 20 to 150 or so. The first cemetery inventoried was the Fish Cemetery on Pequot Avenue in Mystic, which dates to 1815 and is home to 49 souls.

The oldest stone the women came across was that of Ann Borodell Denison in Elm Grove Cemetery. She was the wife of George and died on Sept. 26, 1712.

Among their favorite epitaphs: “Loving wife, mother and martyr” and “This too shall pass.”

As a team, Joanna Case does the photographing of each stone or marker, and also reads the epitaph, tracing with her finger, if need be, the inscriptions too weathered to decipher by sight alone. Judy Hicks, with notebook, pen and beach chair, does the recording. Their outings, naturally, are subject to fair weather.

A third member of the team, Sandra Selders, who lives in Florida, takes the raw data compiled on Judy’s handwritten sheets and organizes the material into an Excel database with links to photographs and cemetery plot maps.

Case, who retired in 2007 after 35 years as director at Mystic & Noank, said she began revisiting her family’s genealogy and discovered the Find A Grave online site. ”I used it several times and saw that I could become a volunteer photographer,” she wrote in a recent email. “I fulfilled a lot of requests for a photo of one stone in several cemeteries and thought it made much more sense to survey an entire cemetery than to keep returning for individual requests.”

As a blueprint for their work, the women relied on the headstone survey carried out by Charles Hale as part of a federal Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s. Hale had begun by charting veterans’ graves in 1916 as a project for the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. During the 1930s WPA survey, Hale and his colleagues transcribed headstones in more than 2,000 Connecticut cemeteries. But the Case-Hicks endeavor includes photos and, more to the point, is searchable via the database.

“I do a lot of finger reading, especially for dates,” wrote Case. “It’s funny but it is not always the very old ones that are unreadable. Some of the marble ones deteriorate or are so moldy that you can’t read them.”

She mentioned the determined effort of Bob Suppicich, a Stonington Cemetery advisory board member, who in recent years has been cleaning headstones there.

“Of note is that I went through one camera and am now on my second Canon Powershot,” she wrote. “The first one went through all the numbers and restarted the count at zero and did thousands more. Finally the lens focus ability got undependable so a new camera was in order. I do take pictures not only of the stones, but the plots, epitaphs, and detail shots. Lots of photos.”

In December, the two women will deliver a program on their cemetery undertaking for the Mystic River Historical Society. It is entitled ”The Cemetery Ladies: Recording the History Buried in Our Cemeteries.”

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at:


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