Moving Forward, Looking Back: Visitors find beauty, history at park-like Oak Lawn Cemetery
Published 6:29 am, Sunday, August 17, 2014
My usual bike route takes me down the lower section of Bronson Road to Southport. I have countless times passed the town's historic 1750 Ogden House and have stopped off to visit when it's open. I've never, though, gone just beyond into Oak Lawn Cemetery, despite its long and interesting history. On a recent sunny afternoon, on impulse, I finally turned in for an impromptu tour.
Oak Lawn Cemetery came about out of necessity. By 1860, the population of Fairfield had swelled to over 5,000, a far cry from the original 40 or so Puritan souls who got things going in 1639. Our current head count of around 60,000 makes 5,000 sound trifling, but remember that mid-19th-century Fairfield was still very much agrarian, with farms taking up much of the land area. It's very likely that your home sits on a former corn field or cow pasture.
Fairfield's growth had a consequence that nobody seemed eager to grapple with: the inevitable need for places to bury its dead. The Old Burying Ground, East and West cemeteries, and the Greenfield Burying Ground were filling to capacity. Mountain Grove Cemetery had been in operation since 1849, but it was mainly serving Bridgeport and felt very far away. As more and more people came to Fairfield to live, more and more would die here, and something had to be done to accommodate its departed citizens.
Finally, in the midst of the Civil War, a group of prominent Fairfielders formed the Southport Cemetery Association, with the goal of "establishing a Burying Ground or place of Sepulture." After a few false starts and enough internal dissension to cause its dissolution, a subset of the original association formed a new corporation, the Oak Lawn Cemetery Association. In 1865, it purchased a 12-acre cow pasture, off what is now Bronson Road, from Susan W. Wakeman, the widow of Zalman Wakeman. Thus began the development of Oak Lawn Cemetery, now about 100 acres, and according to cemetery staff, the final resting place of about 20,000 people.
Cemetery design was moving away from the dense, soldierly arrangement of gravesites to a more pastoral and free-form layout, and Oak Lawn's directors subscribed to this approach. The idea was to create an inviting, meditative memorial park rather than a rigid and dreary burial ground. Fairfield's old families immediately bought lots at Oak Lawn, and relocated departed family members from the crowded West Cemetery on the Post Road to the much tonier and serene Oak Lawn.
Oak Lawn has steadfastly stuck to its mission over the past century and a half. Past the unassuming entrance and the small office building, a visitor is free to wander through the five miles of winding roadways that divide the rolling property into sections. In the northeast corner of the property, past a field awaiting new residents, is a sunny mausoleum with crypts and niches for ashes.
It's a cemetery, OK -- you can't help but notice the gravestones, old and new, monumental and humble -- but it's a cemetery with a disarming, park-like cheerfulness that makes you almost forget where you are. There's even a certain comfort in seeing so many names familiar to Fairfielders. The cemetery's online records show, for example, that there are 157 Jennings gravesites, 118 Burrs, 135 Perrys, 89 Wakemans (though Zalman and Susan aren't here), 136 Sherwoods, and an impressive 237 Bulkleys.
I especially enjoyed discovering the original Jennings section, with such notables as Oliver Burr Jennings of Gilded Age wealth (Standard Oil), and his children, including Oliver Gould Jennings and Annie B. Jennings, so influential in the 20th century history of Fairfield. A few steps from the Jennings lot lies the magnate Walter B. Lashar, Oliver G.'s neighbor in life, and now for eternity. Their respective estates, Hearthstone Hall and Mailands, now make up most of the Fairfield University campus.
In the early 20th century, a headstrong lady named Mabel Osgood Wright took a strong interest in the cemetery, and fought to have it be less overgrown and more open. She and her husband had a penchant for inscribed boulders, and she installed one at her family gravesite on a shady rise above an unspoiled stretch of the Mill River. It says, "God Is Our Rock." Although other inscribed rocks of hers were removed because she didn't ask permission to put them in, this one is here to stay.
Despite its "old money" origins, the cemetery is nondenominational and multiethnic, as the variety of gravestones suggests, including Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Hungarian, Irish, Italian and Asian markings. Oak Lawn Cemetery is old enough to offer a random visitor an enjoyable, unemotional walk through history. It's also an accredited arboretum, with a walking tree tour, and it sports its own apiary (honey bees!) near the entrance.
But it is, after all, an active cemetery; sooner or later, one gets brought back to earth. I came across the graves of two physician colleagues, and the grave of a guy I played softball with for many years. I stopped at the gravesite of Jason Robards and his wife Lois. Many years ago, unusual and never-repeated circumstances led us to his house in Southport, and Lois permitted me to take his "A Thousand Clowns" Oscar off the mantle and hold it in my hands.
Oak Lawn Cemetery works hard to be a welcoming place to visit, despite its central job of housing our departed. I suggest you take them up on the invitation.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears periodically. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.