"The porch provides a view of our two mills, one for sawing wood, the other grinding grain. Our apple orchard is full this year, and we are hoping make a journey to market in Paterson very soon."
So might have read the journal of Richard Romaine in 1870. His property, which overlooked the Saddle River, featured a 5 bedroom manor house, built in in the early Italianate style – just at the start of the Victorian era. Some 35 years later it was this home which was to become the administration building for Riverside Cemetery.
In the March of 1906, the Lakewood Cemetery Association was created. Comprised of 125 acres (20 of which were later sold), the cost be nearly $27,000,000 in today’s dollars.
The cemetery was planned in the style of Frederick Law Olmsted’s New York Central Park, with curving roads, and winding paths. This was no simple task, as the property had to first be transformed with trainloads of soil, a barn for the horses and hay, and greenhouses constructed. Gravel roadbeds were set out, and later paved, and the manor house was converted into an office structure, with a steel I-beam inserted to support the lobby ceiling.
In 1910, the first burial took place about 100 yards behind the office. Records show the first copy of rules and regulations for the cemetery dating 1914. Here it clearly states “Burial of persons not of the Jewish faith is strictly prohibited.” By the 1930’s, nearly two thirds of the 110,000 gravesites were already sold.
One winter night in 1950, perhaps after a heavy snowfall, someone decided to start a fire in one of the office’s four working fireplaces. A chimney fire ensued and before the flames were extinguished, the second floor of the building was gone. In the aftermath, a concrete vault was installed, the roof was raised, dormers added as was a bell tower. Last but not least, the town installed a hydrant close to the building (the lack of which was the cause of the excessive damage).
In the late-1940s to mid-1950s, Riverside was serving nearly more than 1000 burials each year and one note suggested an estimated 250,000 people visited in one year. The cemetery was under the second generation of management, and much was done to beautify the grounds near the office, especially planting nearly 70,000 (!) tulip bulbs each summer. Ironically, and despite all this beautification, some gravesites which had been neglected years before were already looking overgrown – as families started leaving the metropolitan area. In some cases, no one was left to provide for the upkeep in the gravesites.
In the 1960s, as the 3rd and 4th generations began to use the cemetery, visitation slowed, as did the number of burials per year. By the 1970s, much of the cemetery had a dense growth of shrubs, and the tradition of planting tulips around the office drive had ended.
Even so, on some Sundays, as many as 5000 cars were counted coming to the cemetery, and public buses brought visitors directly to the main building. Riverside had become a suburban park for many urban families, and a trip to visit gravesites very often was accompanied by a picnic on the grounds.
The 1980s brought change to the cemetery as the 3rd generation of management took control. Office procedures that had been stranded in the 1950s were replaced by early personal computers for letter writing and record keeping. Standards for each aspect of cemetery maintenance were established, and the field crews were professionally trained in each task, transforming Riverside into one of the best manicured Jewish cemeteries around. As overgrown shrubbery and plantings were removed, the extent of the work to be remediated became clearer. A program of repair and restoration of walkways and roads, tree trimming and monument leveling was put in place, which is still in practice today.
The last decade has been one of continuous improvements. From an integrated computer business system, digital photography, to improved procedures for providing modern tools to the field staff. Our crews, who had been using a dilapidated wood section of the greenhouse as a meeting room, were provided with a modern break room, complete with kitchen and locker facilities.
Then in 2005, we began the restoration of our office building, revealing for the first time since Richard Romaine stood on the grounds, the underlying structure of the post-and-beam construction, and renovating the building from the base of the foundation to the apex of the roof. The completed home now stands as it once did, overlooking the Saddle River, its roof line restored to a simpler, uncluttered triangle, the bell tower replaced with a transparent ‘belvedere’ and a period-accurate wraparound porch that incorporates a ramp and provides shelter from the elements.
Importantly, all of these changes have been made with the needs of our plot holders and visitors in mind. This includes the addition of an all weather ritual hand washing fountain adjacent to the working well on the side of the office building. We hope our efforts will stand the test of time, as we continue to serve our community long into the future with warmth, compassion and professionalism.