Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Group tends neglected cemeteries

Vermont association works to restore crumbling burial grounds

July 30, 2000


— Charlie Marchant can't bear the sight of a cracked headstone. He's bothered by monuments that have shifted to one side from the ebb and flow of decades of Vermont winters. And he gets frustrated by towns that pay little attention to their cemeteries.

"The ultimate weapon is simple neglect, benign neglect," he says.

Marchant, 55, spends his days fighting that neglect -- as a member of the Vermont Old Cemetery Assn. and as a professional stone restorer.

And there's a lot of work to do. The association counts about 2,000 burial grounds in Vermont.

Marchant's fascination started as a kid helping his uncle restore cemeteries in Connecticut where he grew up. Later he became the cemetery commissioner of Townshend, where he now lives.

That's where he learned his craft. Half of the town's 15 cemeteries had major stone damage, he says. He joined the Association of Gravestone Studies in Massachusetts and became a professional stone restorer.

Every stone has a story to tell. "I look for symbolism, epitaphs, things that may be purely local in nature," he says. "For the early stones there's some pretty phenomenal artwork, in the folk art category, or the professionally carved."

The cemetery association has 850 members, some of whom live outside the state but have ancestors buried in Vermont, like Richard and Lois Bailey of Bayshore, N.Y. They hired Marchant to restore a small family plot in Grafton.

Richard's great-great-grandfather, Given Holmes, was buried there in 1844. He lies next to his first wife, Sily, who died in 1801 at age 29 after bearing four children, and his second wife, Lucy, who was buried in 1832.

The plot sits at one end of the well-kept acre of graves hidden at the bottom of a dirt road. The cemetery is surrounded by a mossy stone wall, and the sounds of a brook. The graves date back to the 1700s, including a monument of one of the members of the Lexington Minutemen.

Yet some headstones slant perilously toward the ground. Several have been removed and stand leaning against the stone wall.

That's what the Baileys fear -- that their ancestors' markers will crack or tumble and be taken away.

"I would really feel so badly if we came up here and they were gone," said Lois Bailey.

That, too, is what Marchant fears. With each vanishing headstone goes a piece of history and artwork that is recorded nowhere else.

Such as the tragic death of a young relative of Given Holmes, who was killed by a falling tree: "Erza H -- son of Erza Jerusha was kil'd instantly by the fall of a Tree June 19 1821 (age) 13 years, 16 days."

The Holmes' dark slate monuments have shifted slightly.

Marchant drives a metal pole about a foot into the ground next to Lucy's headstone. He prods several spots, to see if there's a base at the bottom or if the monument stands alone.

Like many colonial gravestones, this one is supported only by a foot of dirt. Victorian monuments have weighty bases, he says. Without a base, the headstone is easier to straighten.

He gently digs around the headstone, removing chunks of dirt to uncover the bottom. He points out gray material in the brown dirt, likely evidence of a wooden object that must have rotted there, he says.

Holding the gravestone with one hand, he feels around in the dirt below, and removes the culprit -- a rock that had lodged under one side of the stone.

He straightens the stone, tests it with a level, and packs the soil around it. He finishes the job with a sprinkle of grass seed.

Most of the members of the VOCA are volunteers, but Marchant gets paid for his work. He does cemetery restoration himself. He teaches the association workshops to towns: how to clean and level headstones and foot stones, how to repair broken stones with adhesive, and other basic aspects of cemetery restoration. Then he checks back to see how the work is going.

"VOCA's real mission is to promote volunteerism and pride in the community," Marchant says.

And as a part-time high school history teacher, he never tires of what he can learn in a graveyard.

"To me, you can't lose much, you can only gain a lot," Marchant says.

On the Net: Vermont Old Cemetery Assn.:

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