A member of George Washington's Culper Spy Ring is buried at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Patchogue — and Rob Fleming can see the grave from his son's bedroom window.

"I always like to brag about that," Fleming, a 42-year-old teacher, said with a laugh.

Fleming's house is about 1,000 feet from this public cemetery. He sees it as an extension of his backyard: An open space to bring his kids to so they could do homework under a tree, ride bikes or just talk about the rich history of the grounds.

He's not alone: Several Long Islanders who live near cemeteries have found beauty in the proximity, whether they've grown up nearby or just moved in. And real estate agents say it's rare for clients to be scared away nowadays by the graveyard next door while house-hunting.

Walt Whitman's relatives are buried in the backyard

Felipe and Natalia Arbelaez's Huntington home was once part of...

Felipe and Natalia Arbelaez's Huntington home was once part of a 500-acre farm owned by the great-grandfather of poet Walt Whitman. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

We were not drawn to [the home] by the cemetery, but we pay respect to it.

— Natalia Arbelaez, who lives with her husband, Felipe, on a property with a historic cemetery

For Felipe and Natalia Arbelaez, the historic cemetery wasn't the issue when they bought their Huntington house — it was the work desperately needed inside.

"The flooring was old and, in a lot of places, completely worn down and rotten," said Felipe Arbelaez, 47. "There was a lot of cosmetic work needed, but fortunately nothing structural."

The house was built in 1660 and rebuilt about 1705 after a fire, Arbelaez learned. According to Huntington Historical Society findings, the property originally belonged to a 500-acre farm, which was owned by the great-grandfather of poet Walt Whitman.

A winding, wooded path leads to the private cemetery at the back of the property, where many of Whitman's relatives are buried. That includes Nathaniel Whitman, a member of the Huntington Militia during the American Revolution.

Walt Whitman wrote the following while visiting the cemetery in 1881:

"I now write these lines seated on an old grave (doubtless of a century since at least) on the burial hill of the Whitmans of many generations. Fifty and more graves are quite plainly traceable, and as many more decay'd out of all form — depress'd mounds, crumbled and broken stones, cover'd with moss — the gray and sterile hill, the clumps of chestnuts outside, the silence, just varied by the soughing wind. There is always the deepest eloquence of sermon or poem in any of these ancient graveyards of which Long Island has so many; so what must this one have been to me? My whole family history, with its succession of links, from the first settlement down to date, told here — three centuries concentrate on this sterile acre.

There are about 120 headstones, which date to the early 1700s, the Huntington Historical Society assessment found.

There is another, smaller section of graves belonging to a local family of the time called the Romes. There are about 16 headstones there, most of which have the family name clearly engraved on them. But for the most part, the headstones throughout the cemetery are worn, rendering them illegible, and some are even cracked.

The Arbelaez family moved to the house in 2021. The couple has three kids, now ages 17, 11 and 4. The cemetery wasn't entirely visible when the couple looked at the house for the first time.

"When we saw the house, there was 2 feet of snow on the ground, so I could barely see," said Arbelaez.

But he could make out about 20 gravestones when he went to the back of the yard. It didn't bother them: The selling points were the size of the lot (just shy of 2 acres) and the surrounding community of horse owners. The Arbelaez family has a barn on site, with two horses: Milo and Turtle.

The house was built in 1660 and rebuilt about 1705 after...

The house was built in 1660 and rebuilt about 1705 after a fire, Felipe Arbalaez said. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

"That was pretty much what we were looking for," Felipe Arbelaez said.

"We were not drawn to it by the cemetery, but we pay respect to it," added Natalia Arbelaez, 38.

The kids like to play hide-and-seek there, and the couple has cleaned it up since moving in. Otherwise, they leave the area undisturbed.

Monica McMahon, a real estate agent at Douglas Elliman's Huntington office, worked with the previous homeowners to sell the house two years ago. She describes the burial grounds as "peaceful," and said people who came to view it felt the same way.

"Nobody was ever scared or intimidated; they were more fascinated with the historic value of the property," she said. "It was more of an exciting feature. They were excited to walk the grounds and see what it was and where it is."

The sellers had lived there for 25 years, McMahon said. Prospective buyers ended up being scared off by the age of the house more than the cemetery out back. But then the right family came along, McMahon said.

"We really love the area," said Felipe Arbelaez, noting that the house is down the street from West Hills County Park. "We're very nature-oriented, and the area is filled with trees and birds. And it's all packed with history."

The cemetery has a small section of graves belonging to...

The cemetery has a small section of graves belonging to a local family of the time, the Romes, as well as members of the Whitman family. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

On an unusually warm autumn day, the only sounds of the cemetery are birds chirping, walnuts falling from trees and the crunch of leaves. When the family first moved in, seeing how at home their dog felt while roaming the grounds was a good sign.

"We thought, if our dog was comfortable with the property, then we should be comfortable as well," Arbelaez said.

The home has a rustic interior — exposed wood beams on the ceiling of the living room date to 1705. But there are no otherworldly encounters to report, the couple said.

"I've never felt any ghosts in the house," McMahon added. "I wish I had."

Are homebuyers discouraged by cemeteries?

A kayaker rows past graves in St. George's Manor Cemetery in Setauket. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

This August, Carolina Boucous of Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty sold a home that borders Underhill Burying Ground in Mill Neck. The private cemetery (which has been in use since the 1600s) is just feet from the home down Factory Pond Road, and sits atop a hill. The headstones are visible from the backyard during winter, when the view isn't obstructed by trees.

So while showing the house during that time, questions about the cemetery next door were inevitable. And while some prospective buyers were put off by it, others were intrigued.

Certain buyers were superstitious and would say, 'I don't think so.' Others would come and say, 'At least the neighbors are quiet.'

— Carolina Boucous of Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty

"The majority were not bothered by it," said Boucous. "Certain buyers were superstitious and would say, 'I don't think so.' Others would come and say, 'At least the neighbors are quiet.'"

Like with McMahon's experience, Boucous found that the house attracted people who appreciated the historical significance, and those who just love Halloween.

Margo Arceri, 55, grew up in Strongs Neck, just north of Setauket. Her childhood home, in which she still lives, is a mile from St. George's Manor Cemetery.

Also known as the Smith-Strong Family Cemetery, the grounds are private and date to 1704. There are about 145 graves, Arceri said. Among them are Anna Smith Strong and Selah Strong, who were members of the Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution. 

Margo Arceri learned about the nearby graveyard's inhabitants from a descendent of a member of the Culper Spy Ring. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

As children, this was our playground.

Margo Arceri, who grew up a mile from St. George's Manor Cemetery in Strongs Neck

The cemetery sits at the dead end of a residential street. It faces Little Bay, which peeks out past a row of trees and brush. Because the grounds can only be accessed with permission from the Strong family, the sole visitors on a normal day breeze by in kayaks.

Arceri said that growing up, one of her closest friends was a descendant of Anna Smith Strong, who is believed to be the only female member of the Culper Spy Ring. The friends would spend plenty of time in the cemetery and Arceri learned about the family's history firsthand from a relative, Kate Wheeler Strong.

"As children, this was our playground," she said. "So there was never a scary experience because he was born into history, and I got to play in history."

Learning about the Strong family as a child led Arceri to create Tri-Spy Tours. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Learning these stories led Arceri to ultimately create Tri-Spy Tours, an experience that takes visitors through the historic sights of Setauket via bicycle, kayak and stroll.

"We feel, at Three Village Historical Society, that this community is our museum," said Arceri, a former vice president of the society. "Everywhere you turn, there's an artifact. And certainly when you turn to St. George's Manor Cemetery, there's not just one artifact, there's dozens."

When Arceri leads her tours through the cemetery, visitors are usually surprised by how serene it feels, she said. Sharing its history reminds Arceri of her own past too.

"It's not even like stepping back in time — it's stepping back in my childhood," she said.

An '80s kid who loves Halloween

Rob Fleming lives with his wife, Alison, and children, Robert, left, and Newt, in the home they purchased in 2007. Credit: Howard Simmons

Halloween is very important to me. ... I've carried that with me to my new house in Patchogue and try to reproduce that love for that reason with my own kids.

— Rob Fleming, who lives with his family near Cedar Grove Cemetery in Patchogue

Rob Fleming and his wife, Alison, moved into their Patchogue home in 2007. Cedar Grove Cemetery is a two-minute walk from there. Their first thoughts upon seeing it?

"We loved it," he said. "It's almost like a park. It's a huge benefit to living on that street, and we were very happy when we saw that."

Fleming said he talks about the cemetery with his children Robert and Newt, ages 10 and 5, all the time. As a U.S. history teacher at Eastport-South Manor Junior-Senior High School, he finds inspiration and fodder for his lessons at the cemetery. A highlight for him is the grave of Austin Roe, another member of the Culper Spy Ring.

The Flemings can see gravesones in Cedar Grove Cemetery from...

The Flemings can see gravesones in Cedar Grove Cemetery from the bedroom windows of their Patchogue home. Credit: Howard Simmons

Not to mention Halloween is one of his favorite holidays.

"Halloween is very important to me," said Fleming. "I'm an '80s kid, and '80s Halloween had very good memories of trick-or-treating, scary movies. So I've carried that with me to my new house in Patchogue and try to reproduce that love for that reason with my own kids."

The family decorates the house annually, strictly the first weekend of October: "You can't be too early or too late," he said. The décor includes frightening skeletons and eerie LED lighting around the exterior.

Rob Fleming tries to bring the magic of 1980s Halloweens to his Patchogue home with LED exterior lighting and decor. Credit: Howard Simmons

Carlene Calabrese of Realty Connect USA sold a house about seven years ago that also shared its street with a cemetery. She said the pool of buyers can be smaller due to this proximity, but that wasn't her experience. 

She compared it to selling a house across the street from a school, which could present different hesitations for prospective buyers, such as parking.

"If you're getting into an area that you want to get into, it doesn't seem to affect a buyer's opinion of whether or not a cemetery is close by," she said. "I've spoken to an appraiser about whether or not it affects the value of how a property is appraised, and my understanding is that appraisers don't take that into consideration."

Having a cemetery near also wouldn't affect the way Calabrese shows the house.

"I don't really market it differently at all," she said. "When they come and see the cemetery across the street, or park, or church, they can make their determination. They're just living inside."

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