By Jim Marquardt
Most of us shy away from cemeteries, perhaps not wanting to be reminded of our mortality. But a walk through Oakland Cemetery on Jermain Avenue is surprisingly pleasant, especially in the informed company of Ernest Schade, a long-time Harborite who treasures everything about the village. Oakland’s mossy acres are beautiful, even though the graves show their age, some stones covered with lichen, a few broken or fallen over. But the mood beneath towering oak trees is peaceful and soft. Poet Margaret Brehman wrote, “I have stood alone and quiet in the filtered sunlight beneath the old trees, listening to the sighing wind and the chattering of birds…”
World-famous ballet master George Balanchine felt the same way. He is buried here because he “liked the look of it.” Ballerina Alexandra Danilova, who left Russia with Balanchine in 1924, also chose a resting place in Oakland, not far from his grave. Actor and film-maker Spalding Gray came here in January 2004, his gravestone a rough rock inscribed in part, “An American Original, Troubled, Inner-Directed and Can-Not Type.” Two unexpected residents were Iranian princes – Manucher and Abol Bashar Farmanfarmaian. Their family had fled Iran after the downfall of the Shah in 1979. Educated in England and the United States, the brothers built successful business careers. A devoted sailor, Abol spent vacations in Sag Harbor and sailed his boat in our waters. When he died in 1991, his family laid him to rest in Oakland, and when his brother died years later, he was buried alongside Abol.
Other names may be familiar, such as novelists Nelson Algren and William Gaddis, but the real fascination and history of Oakland is in the illustrious, legendary families that are buried here. If you have looked at all into Sag Harbor history you will recognize family clusters marked Huntting, Havens, Corwin, Fordham, Latham, Hildreth, French, Babcock, Topping, Halsey, Cook, Glover, Conkling, Bill, Finckenor. Most of the gravestones are fairly humble. Only two mausoleums were built in the cemetery, the largest a 14 ft. square, granite tomb marked “Fahys,” the man who moved his watchcase factory to Sag Harbor and married a local girl.
A November 1989 New York Times article by Kathleen Parrish said the Oakland acres “were laid out in 1840, but the oldest grave, moved from the Old Burying Ground next to the Whalers Church, is that of Hezekiah Jennings, dated 1767.” Historian Dorothy Zaykowski explains that in the mid-19th century as Madison Street was being graded and paved, it was feared that caskets might tumble into the street from the over-crowded Old Burying Ground, and in 1860 a number of graves were moved to the new cemetery.
Captain David Hand, a whaling captain who died in 1840, is surrounded by the graves of his five wives. He wrote a puckish epitaph, “Behold ye living passing by, how thick the partners of one husband lie.” Perhaps the most famous memorial in Oakland is a white marble shaft representing the broken mast of a ship, inscribed on its base “Entombed in the ocean, they live in our memory.” The names of six Sag Harbor whale ship captains who lost their lives in the dangerous business are engraved on its sides.
There is sad history in the graves of men who fought in too many wars, from the War of Independence to conflicts centuries later far from home. A large stone is inscribed “To the memory of Eugene Smith French, Son of Stephen B and Mary A French, Born at Sag Harbor January 23, 1862, Died on the Field of Battle at Caloocan, Philippine Islands Friday February 23, 1899.” A new grave is that of Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter of the U.S. Marine Corps, a son of Sag Harbor, who was killed defending fellow Marines in Iraq and was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism.
There is history too in a grave marked Olive L. Pharaoh “Queen of the Montaukett Indians.” Here and there in Oakland are flowers, some artificial, and little American flags stuck in the ground. Small stones sit on top of some graves, probably placed with a prayer and a memory. Only the main path is black-topped, otherwise the ground is gravel, grass and moss.
According to Ken Yardley of Yardley & Pino there are some 3,000 occupants here, but the village fathers who acquired the acreage looked far ahead – on its southern edge is an undeveloped section, providing room for more Harborites, or for people who just like the look of the place. It might be good to make a reservation now.