YORK, Maine — Cemetery headstone conservator Jonathan Appell’s line of work inevitably prompts one-liners. He tends to use the one, “I work the graveyard shift a lot.”
But it’s no joke, he said, that too many ancient cemeteries in Maine and New England and beyond are in disrepair, with leaning or toppled stones atop graves belonging to long-forgotten people who no longer have families to tend them.
“This is a huge problem from coast to coast, but particularly in New England, which tends to have the oldest cemeteries,” said the West Hartford, Connecticut, conservator. “The scope and needs of these old cemeteries are so big that people tend to just walk away. Every stone is a microcosm; each one is a project. And as interest moves to the new areas of the cemetery, the old parts tend to be forgotten.”
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Appell, who was at the New England Cemetery Association conference in York this past week, has spent the past 31 years as a monuments conservator and lecturer. It’s a job that has taken him all over the country and to some of the oldest recorded graveyards in America like the Granary in Boston and in Jamestown, Virginia.
He’s particularly concerned about Victorian-era graveyards. The truly old burying grounds where town “founding fathers” are interred tend to be cared for by municipalities and cemetery organizations. He stands in the oldest part of the First Parish Cemetery, where the stones date to 1837 and where most of Victorian-era York residents were buried. York’s Old Burying Ground is across York Street from First Parish, where the 17th and 18th century founding fathers and mothers are interred.
“This one is kind of overwhelming,” he said, looking out at a sea of marble headstones, some visibly leaning, many of which are experiencing various levels of disrepair. Cemetery trustees are working to repair the headstones as time and funding allows, said superintendent Todd Frederick. “We’re going to start taking care of the severe ones. The stones themselves are owned by the families and many of the families are long gone. You can’t charge anyone because there’s nobody to bill.”
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Slowly, he said, his crew will work to stabilize and repair the entire section but agrees it will take time.
Appell said most of the headstones need to be conserved. For instance, many of them are flush to the ground. That wasn’t the case when they were installed. Each headstone was originally placed on an 8- to 10-inch granite base. In First Parish, today these bases are barely visible if not completely buried. That is not uncommon in many cemeteries of this vintage, he said.
The biggest reason for the virtual disappearance of the base is a build up of sediment over the past 200 years — leaf mold, grass clippings and the like that piled up little by little. In addition, the ground heaves and settles, he said.
“Caskets will settle sometimes even 100 years later,” he said. “Originally, these bases were meant to be seen. So these gravestones have completely lost their historical context.”
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That leaves the marble headstone susceptible to tipping or damage from mowers, “whereas if you have a big granite base, you’re going to give it a lot of protection.” A typical conservation of a headstone involves removing it, digging a trench around the base, lifting it out of the ground, filling the hole with gravel, and then resetting the base and attaching the headstone with modern-day epoxies.
The marble headstones themselves have their own stories. Seventeenth and 18th century stones were typically made of slate, he said, and more modern stones are made of granite. But in the 19th century, marble was the stone of choice. Seacoast area marble likely came from Vermont, traveling by rail in the latter part of the century.
“Marble was thought to be incredibly durable and would last forever. But they really weren’t aware of the modern conditions,” he said. “Marble is much more susceptible to acid, which would be acid rain and pollution. And it doesn’t have to be modern pollution. Coal burning, especially in valleys where they tended to build cities, would be trapped and cause localized pollution.”
As a result, once highly shiny headstones are often today pitted and rough as the elements have worked on them.
“If you go to a city, like Boston, where I have done work at the Granary (a 17th century burying yard), the marble is in terrible condition because of the pollution. There’s nothing you can do about that. It’s in the environment,” he said.
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Asked about the earliest stones he’s conserved, he points to work he’s done in Jamestown, on the “Knight’s Tomb” — believed to be the oldest stone in Jamestown, which was founded in 1607. Appell said he was called in to conserve the stone that was found cemented into the floor of the Jamestown Memorial Church — the result of work done in 1906.
“People used to be buried in the church. It was a European tradition. The more prestigious they were, the closer they would be to God,” he said. “This stone was literally of a knight in shining armor. I took it out, reconstructed it, put it back together and right now it’s in the visitors center waiting until next year to be put back in.”
He said he looks forward to continuing his conservation work for years to come, and said there’s enough cemeteries in need of his services to keep him busy. He does train cemetery staff to properly conserve gravestones and even said volunteers could do the work with the right set of skills, which he calls “somewhere between an art, a science, a craft and a trade.”
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Superintendent Frederick said he’d be delighted to see some dedicated townspeople who would be willing to help maintain the 19th century portion of the First Parish Cemetery. “I’ll bet there are volunteers out there who would be interested. If people are, give us a call.”
That would please Appell.
“I have a positive attitude about it,” he said. “There is a great need, but it’s gaining more interest. The more things are mass produced, the fewer historic things exist. That makes what’s left become more historically significant. I think that resonates with people.”
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