Restoring the dignity of old gravestones

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Killingly - posted Tue., Mar. 5, 2013
This graveyard on Franklin Street in Danielson is one of 72 old cemeteries in town. Photos by D. Coffey.
This graveyard on Franklin Street in Danielson is one of 72 old cemeteries in town. Photos by D. Coffey.

The Killingly Historical Society hosted the Friends of Smithfield Cemeteries on March 2. Don Burns and Lonnie Thurber spoke to KHS members about their work locating graveyards and recording and restoring some of the gravestones in Smithfield, R.I.'s 117 cemeteries.

The FSC is a group of volunteers who have been gathering every other Saturday, from 9 a.m. to noon, since the late '90s. Their charge: to care for graveyards and those stones in need of attention. It's a big job. Smithfield has approximately 2,000 gravestones, some of them dating back to the 1700s. While the town had records of 80 graveyards, FSC knew there were more than 100 of them. It enlisted the help of hunters and residents to locate some of the lost graveyards, and eventually convinced the state to provide signs marking them.

Many of the graveyards are small plots located on farmland or long since grown over by brush and forest. The stones range from flat slate, to limestone, to granite. Neglect, the passage of time, and in some cases vandalism have contributed to the deterioration of many old stones. FSC members restore and in some cases reset the stones they find. It's a labor of love for Thurber and Burns. They share an interest and sympathy for the stones.

“You'll get four or five guys standing around a stone trying to read it,” Thurber said. “We've noticed changes in the inscriptions over time. In the late 1700s, the sayings and phrases became more emotional, more Christian-oriented.”

The group has learned how to clean and repair stones through trial and error. “You don't want to use anything from under the sink to clean them,” Burns said. There's variety and challenge to restoration work. Slate stones are the toughest to work on because rain shreds them. Limestone breaks easily. Granite shows repair work easily. “We've made all the mistakes you can,” Burns said.

The challenge brings volunteers back, according to Thurber. They've used epoxy to re-attach broken stones, hammer drills and bits and stainless steel threaded rods to attach stones to bases, tripods to lift obelisks that can weigh 600 pounds. “We do a lot of praying when we're putting a stone back on its base,” he said. They've learned that tools can easily damage fragile stones, and that sometimes no amount of care can bring back faded inscriptions.

“We're bringing dignity back to these cemeteries,” Burns said. “That's one of our mottos.”

“We really need the help of volunteers to care for our cemeteries,” KHS member Glenna Bruno said. Associations that used to care for many of them have dissolved, or members have grown too old to do the physical work.

According to Lynn Laberge, there are 72 cemeteries in Killingly, ranging from plots with a few stones to larger ones. All of them have been GPSed and some of them have been adopted. KHS would like to see the cemeteries adopted by town residents or organizations. For more information, contact the KHS at 860-779-7250.

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