When Grace D’Alleva set out to clean up a small family cemetery on Larsen Lane in West Babylon, her goal and resolve were crystal clear.
“These are veterans,” the retiree said. “The people buried in that cemetery fought for our freedom. I really believe they deserve a resting place of comfort and beauty.”
Over the past several years, D’Alleva, 67, has taken what was once a neglected, weed-infested shadow of a burial ground and has transformed it into a tranquil, garden-inspired resting place for the dozens of men, women and children buried there.
D’Alleva, who is retired from the state’s department for people with developmental disabilities, lives a few blocks from the cemetery, but her history with it goes back much further. She grew up in West Babylon and remembers the cemetery — which sits between two homes and across the street from others — from her high school days. She and her friends would hang out or ride their bikes past the spot, which they called the “haunted cemetery.”
In 2013, D’Alleva and some longtime friends were talking about the community and the cemetery came up. D’Alleva had forgotten about the plot of land, but when told where it was she walked over and began taking photos of the unkempt burial ground. Garbage was strewn throughout, with fallen, broken headstones among unruly brush. A family of raccoons had even taken up residence.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to clean this up,’ ” she recalled. “There was just something that said to me, ‘You’ve got to do something about this.’ ”
The grandmother of two said she worked seven days a week on her newfound project, digging, pulling and toiling in the snow and 90-degree heat with the assistance of some neighbors and supporters. As she cleaned, she explored and realized the cemetery belonged to the Davis, Seaman and Wright families, descendants of some of Long Island’s first settlers. She was astounded to find military veterans from the Civil War, as well as World War I and World War II. D’Alleva delved into their genealogy, poring over obituaries and documents dating back more than a century to learn as much as she could about the cemetery’s inhabitants.
“I would be up until 2, 3, 4 a.m. looking and looking and finding little things,” D’Alleva said.
Happy to help
D’Alleva got some assistance from Sean Hotelling, who in 2015 took on the cemetery for his Eagle Scout project and installed a flagpole as well as concrete benches, planted shrubbery and did other work. Friends made donations, and businesses gave D’Alleva discounts on flowers and shrubbery or statues of angels and soldiers that D’Alleva used to adorn the cemetery. She had trees that posed a danger removed, hung crosses, placed stones with inspirational sayings and created two angel gardens in memory of the babies she learned had been buried there.
“It took a lot of time, it took a lot of effort, but I’m so happy with it,” said D’Alleva, who still spends time maintaining and sprucing up the cemetery. “No one should have headstones broken and be left unknown. Men who fought in a war for us? No, history should not be left on the ground.”
There were about a dozen headstones but many more unmarked graves, D’Alleva said. One man buried in the cemetery, Robert Benjamin Seaman, only had a simple marker for his grave. Through her research, D’Alleva found out that Seaman was a World War II Army veteran who had served as a warrant officer. She found a descendant and was able to get Seaman a military headstone. He and other veterans buried in the cemetery will be honored on Veterans Day with a military funeral.
Praising ‘a patriot’
“She’s just a wonderful patriot,” said Charlie Volpe, past commander of American Legion Sgt. John Sardiello Post 1634 in West Babylon. Volpe and his post helped D’Alleva with her cemetery project, along with the West Babylon Lions Club. “It’s amazing what she’s done. My God, the research alone took her so long.”
Volpe said he had driven by the spit of land dozens of times, never even realizing it was a cemetery because of all the overgrowth.
“She’s literally paid thousands of dollars out of her own pocket for this,” Volpe said. “And she’s not a wealthy woman, she’s just a retired citizen from the neighborhood who took it upon herself to do something so wonderful.”
Babylon Town Deputy Supervisor Tony Martinez called D’Alleva an “angel on earth” for her work. There are about a dozen of these small, abandoned cemeteries scattered around the town, he said, and even more across Long Island. The cemeteries often sit landlocked between homes or in remote areas nearly inaccessible by foot because of overgrown weeds and brush.
According to state law, the town must maintain abandoned cemeteries twice a year. With the Larsen Lane cemetery, the town has put in some additional effort, Martinez said, installing fencing and a spigot so D’Alleva can water the grass and flowers.
Martinez said town officials have been meeting with D’Alleva and descendants of those buried in the cemetery to figure out the site’s future. Martinez said the town wants to be sure that the cemetery doesn’t become abandoned again and that it will be cared for once the duties become too much for D’Alleva.
“We want to make sure Grace’s legacy continues,” he said.
As a result, the town has suggested that D’Alleva and others form a nonprofit, which will allow the group to apply for funding and other help to keep the cemetery in top shape. D’Alleva said she is working with the descendants to create a cemetery association.
“I’d like for this to be a model,” D’Alleva said. “There are so many of these cemeteries in Nassau and Suffolk, and these are good projects for young adults and families to do. There’s so much history here, and if we don’t take care of these places, our history will be lost.”
Other unincorporated and abandoned cemeteries in the Town of Babylon:
Austin Cemetery, Archer Avenue
Brewster Cemetery, Bethpage Road
Bunn-Green Cemetery, Bethpage Road
Burch Cemetery, Eastern Parkway
Conklin Cemetery, north of Colonial Springs Road
Seaman Family Cemetery (no address provided)
Miller-Squires Cemetery, Great Neck Road
Purdy Cemetery, Delaware Avenue
Steele Cemetery, Brewster Lane
Source: Town of Babylon