New York State Funeral Directors Association


They were placed prominently on two tables in the foyer of an historic mansion. It was a building only Colonial-era American aristocracy called home two centuries ago.

Unlike in the days that followed their deaths, the remains of 14 people were treated with respect and honor by the community. They lived and died as slaves in Colonial New York – but they were re-buried as brothers and sisters in the year 2016.

The Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground Project was, in itself, an historic event. These once-forgotten servants gave modern people a chance to express remorse for the wrongs that saw slaves of the Schuyler family buried with neither headstone nor name in unmarked graves.

Found by accident during a construction project, the Schuyler’s slaves drew the attention of numerous people and organizations. They donated time, effort and materials in order to make sure fellow New Yorkers were treated with dignity.

“We just did it because it was the right thing to do,” said Funeral Director Kristen McVeigh, whose family funeral home has worked for decades to ensure the dead are treated properly.

The funeral home was involved in moving occupants of entire cemeteries prior to the construction of a school in the Empire State’s capital city Albany, and another where hospitals and colleges were built.

It seems fitting this funeral home’s earliest incarnation handled memorial arrangements for the 18th U.S. President, General Ulysses S. Grant – one of countless Americans who risked their lives in the American Civil War that many would argue was fought to end slavery.

“This was very special. We really foresaw this as an opportunity to make right the sins of our fathers,” McVeigh said.

Scientists, including Lisa Anderson, Curator of Bioarcheology at the NYS Museum, were able to pinpoint the African origin of these servants and estimate their ages at death.

Even though their names are lost to history, there was enough information gleaned from scientific research to know the adults worked very hard throughout their lives.

And, as if any facts drawn from the research could be seen as “fortunate,” Anderson said her study of the remains determined there were no signs of violent trauma nor any indication of malnutrition.

And Anderson wasn’t working with the remains as if they were parts of some science experiment.

“They’re people. You always think of them as people,” Anderson said.

Members of the community sought out an opportunity to take part in the project. Several crafted burial containers the remains could be buried in - including 4th-graders from All Saints Catholic Academy and members of the Northeastern Woodworkers Association.

Wake at the Mansion

14 burial containers crafted for once-forgotten slavesThe burial containers were placed beneath portraits of the wealthy aristocrats who didn’t find it important to honor those who toiled at their behest.

They were six women, one man, two children and five infants – 13 African American, one Native American. They laid in a place of honor at the mansion and dozens of people stopped by to pay their respects.

Among those touched by the whole endeavor was abstract artist Doris “Phree” McCullough, who got to work crafting a piece to display when she heard about the effort.

As she worked to build her tribute to adults who lived as servants and infants born into slavery, McCullough said her thoughts focused on family and the meaning of that word “slave.”

“The pain they must have endured … it’s just hard,” McCullough said as she fought back tears.

The statue she made is crafted from tiles, cast iron, glass, copper sheeting and part of an 1800s sewing machine. Among the elements of the piece she described: a key, because there’s no more locks for these people, she said. And the word “FREE” displays prominently in the work.

Other ideas and ideals McCullough identified from her artwork: God is powerful, time changes, compassion, courage and valor.

A tent was set up on the back lawn of the mansion where people gathered to speak about topics including the life of slaves and the religious beliefs and practices of Native Americans and African Americans.

Those attending the wake in the early afternoon were able to receive a blessing. Called “smudging,” Shaune Anthony Sundown used a feather to fan smoke from smoldering herbs towards each person – an age-old practice he said cleanses the space around them.

Organizers planned an all-day affair at the mansion. There were discussions of the heritage and history of those living in America’s melting pot. There was music and dance performed by diverse groups.

People read poetry and public officials made remarks.

There was silent reflection by those who stood before more than a dozen burial containers with the remains of people whose lives few people today could bear, much less imagine.

The view people saw at the wake in the mansion mirrored what any resident of New York’s Capital Region sees on a daily basis – people of all faiths, people of all colors.

The funeral that followed, the next day, was no different.

Welcomed at St. Agnes Cemetery

Guests streamed into historic St. Agnes Cemetery. There was a steady flow of people much like the scene of scattered groupings of couples, families and individuals scurrying from a parking area to an event.

Some parked a quarter-mile away along the cemetery’s small roads; others caught a shuttle bus that carried groups to the site. Cemetery Historian Kelly Grimaldi said organizers estimated 300 people arrived to attend the one-hour, graveside service.

programs from the Memorial Services recognize many involvedAnd there were people showing up the next day, asking where the site was so they could go see it, she said.

Music filled the air before the ceremony began.

Two hearses, one white, one black, carried the remains onto the grounds before pallbearers, mostly youths, carefully carried the burial containers to a spot near the headstone made especially for these once-forgotten people.

St. Agnes Cemetery chose “Founder’s Hill” as a burial site, in front of the tall obelisk erected for the cemetery’s founder, Peter Cagger.

It’s the hill where the well-off secured their burial places in the 1800s – with views of surrounding mountains and the Hudson River valley.

It was unclear what religion the Schuyler family’s servants adhered to. So one by one, a team of diverse clergy, people representing many religious faiths, spoke before offering a prayer of blessing over the headstone and remains.

A feeling of fellowship flowed throughout the scene despite the obvious differences in dress, faith and ethnicity.

Some guests stopped to pray briefly, others just stared at the sight before laying flowers on top of the tiny burial containers.

McVeigh, the funeral director, said the flowers are an important element of the funeral home’s services – they allow all who are there to play a tangible role recognizing the deceased.

Though more than a century late, the funeral brought hundreds of people together in an historic Upstate New York cemetery to pay their respects to more than a dozen who endured a life of slavery.

And the whole affair left a solid reminder in the ground above these one-time servants.

The side of the headstone facing uphill reads:

The wholeness of the living is diminished when the ancestors are not honored.

On the other side:

Here lies the remains of 14 souls known only to God. Enslaved in life, they are slaves no more.

 


EdsPhotoEd Munger
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association