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Fading Stories In Stone – New England Cemeteries In Need Of Restoration

Early gravestones in the First Parish Burying Ground, Arlington MA

Early gravestones in the First Parish Burying Ground, Arlington MA

Fading Stories In Stone – New England Cemeteries In Need Of Restoration.   An article in Sunday’s Boston Globe, “A Race Against Time To Save History”, about Robert Carlson’s work documenting and restoring gravestones on the Cape caught my eye. I love early cemeteries and the terrible condition of many of them has been on my mind recently.  I was happy to learn about Carlson’s efforts and to see the Globe publicizing the desperate need for conservation of New England cemeteries. 

Old cemeteries have always fascinated me.  As kids we played regularly in the cemetery near the town center in Medfield, Mass.  Some of the gravestones dated from the 1600s and I admired the carvings that changed through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – from the winged skulls, to the more cherubic faces. to the weeping willows. I loved the inscriptions with the bits of people’s history and the beautiful old names.

Each year on Memorial Day we visited another old cemetery in Shirley to plant geraniums.  One year as we poked around nearby plots we found a very early wooden grave marker – still the only one I’ve ever seen.

By third grade I was doing genealogy with my grandfather and visited old graveyards in many New England towns with him and my grandmother. Always the stories told on the old slate gravestones were a source of fascination as we hunted for clues about our ancestors.

Bas-relief carving on an Old Burying Ground gravestone in Arlington

Bas-relief carving on an Old Burying Ground gravestone in Arlington

The centuries old gravestones had survived the years well.  Most were completely legible – the incised words easy to read, the decorations almost as beautiful as the day they were carved.  In the 1970s gravestone rubbing was a popular hobby and the markers in local cemeteries were still crisp enough to make fine rubbings.

Imagine my dismay when I revisited my favorite childhood cemetery some twenty years later and found that in that relatively short time the stones had degraded dramatically. Many inscriptions could no longer be read and the carvings were difficult to discern. 

It was shocking.  How could these markers last two hundred years and then in just a few years be so damaged? 

What does it say about our environment?  About how polluted the air and water have become in recent years that centuries old stone carvings can be worn away in short order?

I went back to the Medfield cemetery last week and was once again appalled.  Lichen covered many of the stones’ surface.  Many stones had been broken.  Inscriptions, if they can be discerned at all, can only be read with difficulty.  Doesn’t anybody care?

The other day I visited the Old Burying Ground in Arlington Center to get photos for this post and was surprised to see gravestones in relatively good condition.  Sure – the inscriptions and carvings have been worn down – but the stones were clean and clearly in much better condition than those in Medfield.

Gravestone restoration in Arlington

Gravestone restoration in Arlington

I was perplexed until I noticed the blue marks on the backs of the gravestones.  It seems that someone had restored the markers in the Arlington cemetery.  I haven’t been able to find any information about the project – if you have any information it please let me know.

The Old Burying Ground in Arlington is absolutely worth a visit.  There’s a wonderful collection of markers and it seems many were done by the same carver.  Many of the carvings – particularly those with a child’s head in bas-relief – are very distinctive.  The cemetery dates to 1736 and the colonists killed in Arlington on the first day of the American Revolution are buried here.

It’s time to take a page out of Robert Carlson’s book and start an Adopt-A-Cemetery movement.  What’s your city or town doing to preserve its cemetery heritage?

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    It’s really sad to see that a lot of these stones and markers have only deteriorated more since your article.
    We were in Salem a few weeks back and they are in even worse condition than those you mentioned in Arlington.

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