About 50 years ago, Indian Hill Cemetery’s Augie DeFrance decided to search for his maternal grandparents’ burial site. When he finally remembered looking out onto a tennis court during the funeral services as a child, he was able to locate his ancestors.
DeFrance, who has always been interested in genealogy, found himself hooked on the idea of being involved in cemeteries, when he went with a friend to a meeting of the old burying ground at Indian Hill 15 years ago. Since then, he has been the secretary and treasurer of Indian Hill in charge of keeping track of bills and records. In addition to his work at Indian Hill, DeFrance maintains eight other cemeteries: the public cemeteries of Middletown (Indian Hill is privately owned). DeFrance works alongside a board of trustees, which consists of a president, vice president, and superintendent.
DeFrance works to put all records of Indian Hill’s bodies into databases. He is thankful for the city of Middletown’s cooperation with this long and complicated task.
“The city of Middletown has been very good,” he said. “We’re slowly putting everyone into a database.”
There are approximately 27,000 people in the database already, with many more waiting to be put in. DeFrance relishes the mystery and the quest for truth.
“There are tombstones, but that [doesn’t account for] everyone,” he said.
Indian Hill was completed in 1850 as a consequence of the social and political circumstances in New England. In the early 1800s, population growth and epidemic disease crowded many burial grounds. After the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1841, leaders then made efforts to create new graveyards on the outskirts of larger cities. Rural cemeteries such as Indian Hill were thought to be more hygienic and conducive to the celebration of life.
Indian Hill was opened as both a cemetery and park. With this dual purpose, the institution took part in the City Beautiful Movement, an architectural philosophy that promoted serene environments for public places, especially cemeteries. The Indian Hill Cemetery Association was the brainchild of Middletown’s elite bankers, merchants, and industrialists.
Dr. Horatio Stone, a physician and sculptor, designed Indian Hill to occupy 20 acres, half of what it occupies today. Bound by Washington, Butternut, Vine, and Cross Streets, the cemetery is a mile all the way around and serves as a place for public enjoyment, with sunbathers and students seeking refuge in its quiet peace during the warmer months.
A focal point of the space is the 228-foot hill, which is a sacred mound to the Wangunk Indians who previously inhabited the land. (By 1770, colonists bought all of the Wangunks’ lands.) There are no graves on top of the sacred hill that offers panoramic views, including those of the elbow of the Connecticut River.
When it first opened, Indian Hill became a popular place to which families move their loved ones from the other cemeteries in Middletown. This was an expensive practice, but it was well worth it to the families, who wished to honor their relatives. Pigs and cows had the tendency to roam around the older burying grounds, knocking over stones and messing up the landscaping.
“No one maintained cemeteries like they do today,” DeFrance said.
In fact, funerals themselves have changed a lot since the early days. Originally, ceremonies included a procession through town with church choirs singing. Representatives from all facets of the community were included in ceremonies, including University students and faculty.
Currently, about 9,000 people are buried at Indian Hill with space still available for more. Indian Hill is a common burial ground, meaning that it’s open to everyone. There are also sections for different religions.
Indian Hill also contains a columbarium, which is a big granite niche used for storing remains. Moreover, there are early 20th-century mausoleums on the Northwest portion of the cemetery, which are privately owned.
At Indian Hill, unlike the public cemeteries in Middletown from the 1600s, the identities of all the buried are known. Everett Bacon (Bacon Field House), a University all-American quarterback in the early 1900s, is buried there. There are three governors, three generals, and many mayors buried at Indian Hill as well. Major General Joseph K. Mansfield, an army officer and engineer during the Civil War and was a critical component at the Battle of Antietam, is buried at Indian Hill, as well as many people from the Grand Army of the Republic.
Built in 1867, the Russell Chapel, unlike the rest of the cemetery, is in dire need of repair. The state of Connecticut gave Indian Hill a grant of two hundred thousand dollars although the restoration is estimated to cost about six hundred thousand dollars. The Chapel serves as a space for everything from funeral services to small weddings to a meeting space for nonprofit groups. The board of trustees hope to fully restore the chapel over the next two to three years, rather than rebuild it.
“[The chapel] is no good sitting there,” DeFrance said, “[No one could ever] build it again. You couldn’t find the craftsmen or the Portland brownstone.”
A cemetery might not sound like the most fun place to hang out in, but don’t be fooled by spooky Halloween movies. Indian Hill flourishes with natural life, huge trees, healthy plants, and people, and it’s a true Middletown gem.