NEWBURY — They are old, heavy, fragile and usually speckled with gray-green lichens or algae. And they stand at all angles, like rows of crooked teeth — with more than a few gaps where the ancient gravestones have toppled flat to the ground.
Rachel Meyer and Josh Gerloff, both of Ipswich, run Epoch Preservation, a budding company working to straighten, repair and, in many cases, reset the heavy marble or slate gravestones in the Burying Ground across from the First Parish Church on High Road. The pair are working one or two days per week through September, and being paid through a $5,000 grant the church received from Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank for the restoration project.
On Wednesday, as Gerloff shoveled dirt away from the sunken stone base into which the ancient stones were sometimes set, Meyer talked about the challenge of the project. There are hundreds of gravestones that could use attention, but they settled on one row that was a mix of 19th-century stones tilting at all angles and, in some cases, broken and flat on the ground.
The process involves picking the headstone off the ground or pulling it up and out of the ground, if it’s standing but crooked. The stone is gently sprayed with water and a solution that gradually removes algae and lichens over a period of weeks. Meyer said there is no abrasive scrubbing, power washing or use of caustic materials because the stones would be damaged.
Meyer and Gerloff use shovels and trowels to find the stone base or whatever materials might have been used to hold the stone upright. Sometimes they use special materials to bond broken pieces or to cement the headstone to the underground base. But with the old graveyards of New England — some graves in the First Parish Burying Grounds date to the 1600s — Meyer and Gerloff said they never know what they’ll find when they start digging.
Dedicated to preservation
Meyer takes the work seriously and believes the cities and towns where old graveyards are located should, too.
Her first restoration project involved a neglected, city-owned burial ground in Gloucester, where the underbrush was taking over, some stones were being used as fire pits and the area was littered with syringes.
“It was a wall of jungle going in there,” she recalled.
Once the area was cleared and some stones reset or repaired, city residents took an interest in the burying ground and are working to maintain it.
That community involvement is key, Meyer said, especially when an entity like the First Parish Church has the burden of paying for mowing, gravestone repairs and overall maintenance of a sprawling cemetery.
As she scanned the Burying Ground on Wednesday, Meyer asked, “How do we have historic houses dedicated to these people and we can’t even take care of their gravestones?”
The burden of caring for the cemetery prompted church members to approach town officials in April with a proposal to give the Burying Grounds to the town. In a letter to selectmen, parishioner Karen Wakefield said the church would continue raising money and providing resources to restore gravestones and repair fences, but the town would own the graveyard and handle mowing, which cost the church $3,000 last season.
Although board members agreed the old cemetery is important in Newbury’s history, they were not willing to accept ownership — and a continuing financial obligation — for the property.
Call for community involvement
On Wednesday, Gerloff said that, ideally, a city or town would take over old burial grounds and work with the church and interested volunteers for ongoing gravestone repairs and lawn care, while the municipality could help apply for and secure grants for restoration work.
Meyer pointed out that, although the Burying Grounds are in Newbury about 100 yards from the border with Newburyport, it contains the graves of former residents of both communities.
“The town and the city should really see that these are their people. Morally and ancestrally we should all be caring about this burying ground,” she said.
Wakefield said there are four cemetery committee members, but the church is looking for other people — from in or outside the church — to become involved.
“We’d like to get participation from the greater community, since the burying grounds are certainly a vital part of the history of the entire Newburyport area,” she said. “We need to be able to get a long-term plan of how to proceed and to get a variety of activities going on — involving the community, applying for grants, and different ways to raise funds. We need a strategic plan.”
She said the church recently determined the Burying Grounds include more land than First Parish officials thought. That means mowing and maintenance this year could be closer to $3,500.
“This is a major expenditure for our small congregation and we’re constantly looking for ways to pay for it,” she said in an email.
Wakefield encouraged anyone interested in being on the committee to contact her at 978-764-7884.
Richard K. Lodge can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.