The Stone Keeper’s Oath

The Stone Keeper’s Oath
(raise your right hand and put your left hand on a copy of your local vital records or other graveyard book.)

I, (your name)
Swear to protect and preserve
The lands, artifacts, and features
Of all burying places.

I will educate others
About their importance.

When I hear of a burying place threatened
By neglect, vandalism, or development
I will publicly advocate for it.

When possible, I will put in the work
To maintain irreplaceable burial landscapes
And their markers.

I make this pledge in honor
of my ancestors and predecessors
And to teach future generations
The importance of respecting
Those who came before us
To encourage self respect and respect for others.

Did you promise?

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We Asked Both Cemetery Professionals and Enthusiasts, Why is Graveyard Preservation Important? This is what they said.

Old graveyards have been falling into ruin for decades, some longer, but there is a resurgence of enthusiasm to save them. I think it is because of the increased interest in genealogy and our ability to share stories easily with one another. Whatever the reason, more and more people are taking an interest in preserving burying grounds and cemeteries. I asked my fellow professionals and enthusiasts why is preserving graveyards so important? I have also included some links to their projects where available.

Charter Street Salem, MA

JASON CHURCH

“I think that cemetery preservation is important because the grave markers are the last tangible evidence of our founding members of society. History is not abstract when we can tie it to a specific person or event. In cemeteries we can do that.” Jason Church Feel, Materials Conservator, National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT). https://www.ncptt.nps.gov/articles/cemetery-conservation/

CRYSTAL DALEY

“Graveyard preservation is important because they are our history. The stones are a public museum of our craftsmen, historic figures and natural habitats meant to be enjoyed and celebrated.” Crystal Daley, Cemetery Trustee, Danville, NH co-founder restoration of FPBG Gloucester, MA http://www.facebook.com/firstparishburialgroundgloucester/

First Parish Burying Ground Gloucester, MA

JEN RATLIFF

“Cemeteries act as open-air museums that better connect us to ourselves and our communities. They provide tangible links to the past and clues to unraveling our history. Here we find the people who made us what we are and by preserving their graves, we are helping to preserve their stories.” Jen Ratliff, Salem, Massachusetts, Archivist and Historian http://www.historybythesea.com

ARIANA MCSWEENEY

“One of the founding principles of Mount Auburn was the idea that cemeteries could be pleasant and peaceful places for the living. This informs a lot of our conservation practice – we are working not only to preserve the memories of the dead, but also to provide a beautiful space in which the living can contemplate our shared history.” Ariana McSweeney, Preservation Craftsperson, Mount Auburn Cemetery http://www.mountauburn.org

TJ CULLINANE

“If people from our storied past were to come back to life, the historic part of the cemetery is the only part of town they would still recognize… We are fond of the quote by William Gladstone that states ‘Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.’ ” TJ Cullinane, President of The Friends of Forest Hill Cemetery, Derry, NH

JOSHUA GERLOFF

“Graveyards are the final resting place for our loved ones. Without continued care for the gravestones, the inscriptions will weather away, at which point, these people exist only as a memory.” Joshua Gerloff, MA co owner Epoch Preservation http://www.facebook.com/epochpreservation/

CHRISTINE LUTTS

“Graveyard preservation is important for the community, history and people buried there. It showcases our local history, ancestors, stories and the beauty of how it was many years ago and should be preserved for generations to come.” Christine Lutts, Friends of Greenlawn Cemetery Salem, MA https://friendsofgreenlawn.wordpress.com

Greenlawn Cemetery Salem, MA

PAULA LEMIRE

“In some cases, the stones are the sole record of a person’s existence. They also make history very personal and tangible.” Paula Lemire, Albany, NY – historian at the Albany Rural Cemetery http://albanyruralcemetery.org

ANGIE WAGNER

“For me, not only do I get to stand with my ancestor by their grave, but I think of all the other family members that stood in that very spot.” Angie Wagner, VP of Pleasant Hill Cemetery, Advance, MO http://pleasanthillcemeteryadvancemo.org/

JUDY GILLISS

“Cemeteries are the Keys to our heritage.” Judy Ann Gilliss – History Buff, MA, Magnolia Historical Society, MA

LAURIE MORAN

“Graveyards are a local history museum and an art museum, surrounded by local flaura and fauna. Where else can you visit your ancestors, learn more about the past residents of your town, be inspired by sculpture, and befriend a squirrel, all in one place?”. Laurie Moran – taphophile and cemetery inspired artist. https://instagram.com/thecemeterrarium?utm_source=ig_profile_share&igshid=jerydhxz3z34

Charter Street Cemetery Salem, MA

ROBIN HAZZARD RAY

“So often, a gravestone is the only remaining trace of a person’s passage through life. By preserving graveyards, we preserve the memory of lost lives and allow future generations to become curious about the past.” Robin Hazard Ray, Docent, Mount Auburn Cemetery. http://www.mountauburn.org

BOBBIE WATSON MATHIS

“Cemeteries are like time capsules of an area’s unique history. Each stone is an irreplaceable record of an individual and the time they were here on earth. I find the symbols, poems and epitaphs add to these individual’s life story. I start researching and feel I get to know not only the people of the time, but also get a snapshot of the town as well. I see the hardships, loss and celebrations when I start connecting a town’s genealogy.” President of The Union City Historical Society and stone preservationist in Union City, MI. https://www.facebook.com/groups/270307273437214/

MIKE GILLETT

What he tells visitors on his cemetery tour. “We drive by cemeteries all the time. Sometimes without knowing it. Unless there is a funeral or it’s Mother’s Day or Memorial Day, or a day like today, we don’t stop or give them much thought. But they are there year ’round. The headstones are sometimes worn from the weather or the years or neglect – or sadly from vandalism – but the worst damage is that of the people if forgotten. These headstones are like bookmarks. Each one represents a life. People die twice… once when they die and the other is the last time they are spoken of. Being dead isn’t so bad – but being forgotten is horrible. … Then I close with the Shakespeare quote from Hamlet. ‘This grave shall have a living monument’ — us!” Mike Gillett, SE Michigan. genealogist, cemetery enthusiast, and Civil War and Revolutionary War reenactor.

Old Hill Burying Ground Concord, MA

VIKI SATKIEWICZ GAYHARDT

“My reason is mostly emotional. Every human being is special and their grave is their final resting place. No matter how much time has gone by, graves should be respected. The deceased were someone’s mother, father, child…it doesn’t matter how much time has passed. Graves are to be respected. Treat them as you would the graves of YOUR loved ones.” Viki Satkiewicz Gayhardt, cemetery appreciator, NH

JOHN DILL

“Is to preserve these outdoor museums, public art, memorial architecture and cultural heritage, and the community history.” John Dill, Bureau of Cemeteries Operations Manager City of Norfolk, VA

CLAY BEISER

“Preservation of all history is very important, without knowledge of history, people live meaningless lives. Everyone who has ever lived had or has a life’s story.” Clay Beiser, Iowa, cemetery enthusiast and history buff.

WESLEY PAINTER

“Cemeteries offer a hidden treasure chest into the past. There is no better time than now to help raise awareness to such important information and stories. It is absolutely vital to our communities to help preserve these markers and to keep these stories flowing for generations to come. Green-Wood Cemetery was once 2nd to Niagara Falls in terms of tourist attractions during the Victorian Era, I hope we all can bring that sort of wonder and amusement back to these such special grounds our world has to offer!” Wesley Painter, Brooklyn, NY
Historic Research – GREEN-WOOD Cemetery http://www.green-wood.com

JENNIFER M. DAY

“Gravestones and graveyards can tell us a lot about the local history, including epidemics of diseases. Gravestones aren’t getting any younger. With harsh weather conditions continually eroding away stones, it is extremely important to preserve what remains; using current best practices cleaning up stones, transcribing, if possible, what is written on the stones, and mapping the gravestones in the graveyards for future generations.” Jennifer M. Day, New Hampshire, genealogist and FindaGrave contributor. https://www.findagrave.com/ https://billiongraves.com/

BRENDAN O’BRIEN

“Shakespeare’s gravediggers called graves “houses that last ‘til doomsday.” For many, the graves that mark these houses are their last sign to the world that they existed. They may not make it as far as doomsday, but it’s an important responsibility to make sure these signs last as long as possible.” Brendan O’Brien, Member of Rumney Marsh Burial Ground Committee, Revere, MA https://www.facebook.com/rumneymarsh.burialground.7

RACHEL MEYER

“Because when studied closely, graveyards offer inclusive and accessible information about our cultural attitudes and their changes throughout history. A neglected cemetery can attract unwanted behavior into a community. Neighborhoods are improved when free from the issues caused by neglect in their backyards. A town or city that cares for its cultural resources, cares not only for its past but for its present and future.” Rachel Meyer, co owner Epoch Preservation, Stone Conservator to Salem, MA and author of this article. http://www.facebook.com/epochpreservation/

If you want to add a quote about why Graveyard Preservation is important, please comment below. Feel free to add the state or country you are in and a link to any projects you are involved in.

All photos courtesy of Rachel Meyer and are subject to copyright.

Author’s Ledge. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery Concord, Massachusetts

A series of granite markers point the way to Author’s Ledge. The resting place for some of our country’s most beloved writers. Visitors leave pens and pencils. Please enjoy these photos and a few quotes from these celebrated authors.
Thoreau is the first of the writers one happens upon when climbing the hill.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne and family.
“Every individual has a place to fill in the world and is important in some respect whether he chooses to be so or not. “
Alcott family plot.
“We all have our own life to pursue, our own kind of dream to be weaving, and we all have the power to make wishes come true, as long as we keep believing.” Louisa May Alcott
Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”. Beautiful rose quartz monument.

Graveyards as Museums: Graveyard artifacts as inspirational and meditative objects.

I’m sitting in one of the areas reserved for visitors to contemplate art from at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. As I sit here looking at a stunning Buddha from the 12th century, perfectly balanced on a lotus flower, I am reminded of how important artifacts are to those looking for inspiration through the lens of the past.

As I sit here there are several sets of tourists pausing at each well lit exhibit box and reading the labels to the corresponding artifacts. I feel strongly that like these objects, equipped with UV glass and alarms to protect them, gravestones and other burying ground objects are similarly important for the purpose of inspiration and are also deserving of our protection.

It is no mistake I sit in front of the Buddha and the lotus (a reminder that beautiful things arise from the mud). We have unique opportunities to restore lost burying grounds and uncover the beauty of their artifacts in spite of neglect and abandonment.

Graveyards are important anthropological resources. In them, we discover attitudes about death from the deaths heads of the 17th century to the more playful iconography of contemporary monuments.

We learn about outbreaks of illnesses. We are inspired to gratefulness that we do not live in a time where TB is rampant and where childbirth was the leading cause of death of women.

We learn about those who came before us and their triumphs and tragedies.

I invite you, on a warm day, to sit quietly in a graveyard. Find the stone that most intrigues you and study closely it’s carving and language, thinking of the person who is memorialized and what you can learn from them. Take some deep breaths and quiet your mind and think of how societies, cultures, epidemics, rise and fall and how things come to pass. Thank those that came before you, if you are moved to do so and do what you can to learn from their stories.

Gravestones may not be protected under UV glass, they may not have alarms, and they don’t need fancy labels. Everything you need to know is on the object, if you’ll just sit a while in wonder.

So You Want to Save a Graveyard? These are the first ten things to do!

Graveyard restoration is satisfying work. It is not however easy work. So I want to help make it easier for you with a few tips to get you started.

Lots of people who are in this field are doing it because they happened upon a site in neglected condition and they were able to make a difference in a way that nobody was able to before. Most of the people who are in this field see the potential in often neglected sites that others do not see. If this could describe you, then know that there are definitely resources out there to help you in your project regardless of your budget. We want you to succeed!

Now without going into the difference between a burying ground and cemetery, I am going to refer to both as graveyards. Since we work in both cemeteries and burying grounds, this list applies to both.

1. Who owns the Graveyard? So you found a graveyard that has been neglected and you want to find out why or you want to volunteer your time landscaping or cleaning it up. The first thing you need to do is find out who owns it and get permission to pursue improving it.

Graveyards can be city owned. They can be privately owned. They can be abandoned (noone owns them). They can even be undiscovered and technically someone owns the land but doesn’t know it is there.

The first thing I would do is Google it. However, if no answer comes up I would call the Department of Public Works in the city or town it is in. They will know if they do or do not own it. If the municipality doesn’t own it but doesn’t know who does, I would then call the Historical Society.

Sometimes just expressing concern is enough for someone to take responsibility but sometimes it takes more than that.

Either way, contact the owners and try to be polite. You don’t know why the place is the way it is. Maybe there are money issues, or it was left to noone in particular and they have been waiting for years for someone like you to help.

2. Is it on Google Maps? Anyone can add a location to Google Maps. If you go on maps and see that the site isn’t on it, you could add it. This will make it easier for volunteers to find it and will help families visit. You will want to do your research on its name before doing this. Some graveyards have been called multiple names and you will have to choose one to put on the map. Choose the commonly used name. You are going to want to be consistent with the name. It may take a while for it to be approved by Maps.

3. Get a sign. So you have permission to work in a graveyard and have found the proper channels to go down to get approval for the projects you want to do. Proper signage lets visitors know that the site is cared for.

Signs can be simple with just the name and date established. Some signs have rules, like “no gravestone rubbing” and “no dumping of trash”. Some have hours like “open sunrise to sunset”. Some have detailed histories. Some say who is caring for the site and how to contact them. Signage helps communicate how you expect people to treat the site going forward.

4. Give your site a Facebook Page or Facebook Group. Having a page specifically for the graveyard you are working on will help you recruit volunteers and raise interest. Do your best to post regularly so people see that your project is active.

Share your posts to local history groups.

5. Document those stones! Join Find a Grave or Billiongraves or even do it the old-fashioned way by making a paper map and a corresponding list of names. Trust me when I say future gravestone restorers will thank you for helping them know there are things missing and where out of place stones belong.

6. No Available Funds? Crowdfund! You probably won’t collect a fortune. Often you will collect enough to get started with small projects though. Also, you could look for small, local grants to get started.

7. Get an education. Attend workshops and join related groups.

If you are near where we work, we like having interns and volunteers and in exchange you learn some of the basic skills you will need for your projects.

If you join groups like The Association for Gravestone Studies and pay attention to opportunities to learn new skills, you can often find workshops that are inexpensive near you.

Read the book A Graveyard Preservation Primer by Lynette Strangstad. There is some common sense stuff in there that may help you get started. Get the most recent edition.

Read up on state and local laws and ordinances. This will help you know what to put on signs.

Before you even attempt to landscape a site yourself, you will need at least some instruction. There is more to think about with graveyard landscaping than you may think and you wouldn’t want to cut down historic plantings.

There is definitely a lot to know about gravestone preservation. You will need to know what materials are okay, how to assess a stone, and a long list of other things. Many of us have seen the results of well intentioned people using the wrong materials and techniques. Please seek out training before working on stones or hire someone with that training.

8. Recruiting volunteers. So you are ready to host your first cleanup. There is trash to pick up and volunteer shrubs to remove, etc. So who are you going to ask?

Try your Facebook followers, your friends, the Historical Society, the Scouts, the ROTC, the Rotary Club, environmental groups, and other community organizations.

No matter who you ask, try to make sure they are happy to be there so they want to keep volunteering. Bring water, sunscreen, and bug spray. Sometimes you can get donations of supplies from local hardware stores and other businesses.

9. Research the history of the site. Who is in it and what is unique about it? Knowing the history of the site will help you apply for National Historic Registry status which will help you apply for grants.

What stories can you find out to bring interest and show others how important it is not to lose the graveyard as a cultural resource? Try going beyond the stories everyone else tells. It is necessary, however. if it is an old burying ground, to point out founding families. If you want to get replacement veterans markers, you will want to know who the veterans are. Also, who are the artists, the business owners, the underepresented groups, the inventors? Was there an epidemic?

Who were the carvers? There are books on this topic.

10. Don’t give up on your project. This is where most projects fail. It gets difficult and people give up. But even if you just do one small thing everyday, it will make a difference to your site. I have met people about to stop but they chose to do one more thing instead and ended up meeting the right volunteer or coming across the right opportunity that ended up making a big difference and reignited their enthusiasm.

Invest in your volunteers. They need to know how to keep things going if you need to take a break or do something new. This may be the most important thing to do. It won’t take long for a site to return to the state you found it in.

Conclusion

I really hope this list helped you. It is in no way complete but should get you started. I wish you well on all your journeys and adventures. I hope someday you will remember back to when you started and you will help someone learn the things they need to know to succeed. We need to inspire one another. Graveyard restoration is satisfying work. It is not however easy work. Nothing worth doing is.

Respecting Graveyard Creatures during Landscape Preservation.

Abandoned graveyards are refuges to the wild. The weeds grow sometimes into jungles. Some have been abandoned for decades and have become forested. If you take on the restoration of an abandoned space it is kind to show compassion to its occupants.

When you clean a stone, carefully remove the spiders. Leave the wild growing milkweed, save the monarch eggs from the small plants in the mowing paths and raise and release them.

Be mindful of the creatures of the graveyard. Make friends with the crows. Smile with the grinning grasshopper and maybe leave a little of the wild where there are not stones.

I suggest taking a look around any project you are about to start. Apart from looking at historic plantings that should be saved also look for plants that attract pollinators. If a plant is in the way can it be moved elsewhere? It is good to remember that an alternative to mowing near stones is planting low growing native ground cover. This both protects the stone from breakage caused by landscaping equipment but creates a more natural looking landscape.

Of course ultimately in order to restore a site there will be some landscaping needed but make decisions knowing that we share these places with all kinds of creatures that need to be protected and respected.

Grasshopper on a tarp covering a gravestone at First Parish Burying Ground Newbury, MA.

Neighborhood cat looking for squirrels at Charter Street in Salem, MA.

Followed by Ducks at Greenlawn Cemetery Salem, MA.
Wild Burdock attracts bees at Broad Street Cemetery Salem, MA.
One of the many butterflies raised from eggs saved from the paths at First Parish Burying Ground Newbury, MA.

Collecting monarch eggs on milkweed leaves at First Parish Burying Ground Newbury, MA.
Spider on a stone at Old North Burying Ground Ipswich, MA
Lady bug at First Parish Burying Ground Newbury, MA
Neighborhood Cat at First Parish Burial Ground Gloucester, MA.

Getting ready for the 2019 Preservation Season

Welcome to our first post! This is Rachel, conservator for Epoch Preservation and I want to offer you this blog as a way for you to get to know what we do and find ways to be a part of it, learn skills, and start your own projects.

I have an upcoming EVENT on March 24th at the Hive and Forge, Salem, MA. It is a Death Cafe. At 11am. I will be bringing photos of interesting things from my work with Epoch Preservation and as the stone conservator to Salem.

Stay updated with this blog to learn more about upcoming events and educational opportunities. Also, feel free to message me with ideas for future posts.

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