Tuesday, September 18, 2018

"Sheep May Safely Graze"

Not long ago, I was in the cemetery one evening with Peter Jung. I was there searching for the culvert where I had been told a fox family resided; Jung was there raking up thatch and trimming around the headstones in the Gifford family plot.

Jung has been the self-appointed steward of the burial site of Sanford Gifford and members of his family since 2008, when he first came upon the grave of the Hudson River School painter, raising funds and orchestrating the restoration of the headstones in 2010.

Since the restoration was completed, Jung has taken it upon himself to keep the Gifford family plot and adjacent areas maintained and tidy, mowing, raking, and trimming the grass around and between the stones.

The Gifford family grave site is in the Hudson City Cemetery, the older part of the cemetery, separated from Cedar Park, the newer part of the cemetery, by Ten Broeck Lane. The earliest grave in the Hudson City Cemetery is that of Phebe Folger, wife of Benjamin Folger, who died in 1784. Cedar Park was developed more than a century later, in 1896. The majority of the graves in the Hudson City Cemetery are from the 19th century. In 1983, this part of the cemetery was determined to be eligible for listing in the State and National Registers of Historic Places for its "noteworthy collection of funerary art, ranging from typically late 18th-century stones executed by a master carver--and embellished with winged effigies and other typical design vocabulary--to tombs, such as the Egyptian Revival-style tomb which is an outstanding reflection of American romanticism in the antebellum period and the interest in that period of utilizing Egyptian design motifs in cemetery design."

In his History of Columbia County, Franklin Ellis said of the Hudson cemetery:
Along the northeastern declivity of Prospect hill, and extending down to the old Columbia turnpike, lies the ground of the Hudson cemetery; a spot combining all the requisites that enlightened modern taste demands in a place of graves,--rural quiet, great natural beauty, and a conformation of surface peculiarly adapted to receive those artificial embellishments which sore-hearted mourners love to lavish around the resting-places of their dead.
The declivity of which Ellis, writing in 1878, spoke admiringly, presents a problem for modern-day cemetery maintenance. Rob Perry, superintendent of the Department of Public Works, which maintains the cemetery, has often noted that steep slope of the old cemetery and the seemingly random placement of the headstones and monuments makes maintaining that part of the cemetery a great challenge. When Jung and I were at the cemetery a while back, he made a suggestion: let sheep take charge of trimming the grass. It seems this is not a completely original idea.

Photo: Gregory A. Shemitz|National Catholic Reporter
For several years, a trio of sheep have been grazing on the grass and weeds growing around and in between the headstones and monuments in the cemetery at the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in Lower Manhattan. Two years ago, the City of Ithaca began using sheep to maintain its historic cemetery. A report that appeared on NYUp.com explained: 
The animals move slowly and can pick around fallen stones that would be chewed up by mowers. That's an advantage in a historic cemetery. The sheep can also maneuver on the cemetery's steep slopes more easily than a human mowing staff.
Sheep and goats--nearly three dozen of them--are used to cut the grass in the historic Vale Cemetery in Schenectady. Why couldn't sheep be employed in Hudson's historic cemetery as well? Sheep would save the City money in cemetery maintenance and free up staff for other public works tasks. 

This suggestion comes with the caveat that sheep should only be allowed to graze in the older part of the cemetery, the part of the cemetery that's been determined to be National Register eligible, where the graves, with only a very few exceptions, are more than a century and sometimes two centuries old and are more likely to be visited by historians and enthusiasts of American funerary art than by relatives of the departed, and not in Cedar Park where they might devour plantings and damage objects placed on the graves of the more recently departed by family members.


  1. I grew up chasing sheep around our Oregon farm. Be glad to help.

  2. At Blithewood, at Bard, there are goats hard at work on the fenced-in slope at the bottom of the mansion’s beautiful lawn leading to the Hudson River. Signs on the fence say:

    Goats @ work!!! For your safety ... DO NOT Enter the enclosure or TOUCH / DISTURB / FEED GOATS! Bite & Stab Hazard! Poison Ivy! Ticks!

    There were four visibly working. There were two more who clearly had been groomed who were on display in a little pen further up the lawn. All for a quite-lovely family-friendly public event this afternoon.