Grave matters dealt with in Woodstock

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Woodstock - posted Mon., Nov. 4, 2013
Don Froelich loosens lichen from a stone with just water and a plastic brush. Photos by D. Coffey.
Don Froelich loosens lichen from a stone with just water and a plastic brush. Photos by D. Coffey.

Thirty people moved through the Woodstock Hills Cemetery on Nov. 2. They had gathered for both a tour and a workshop on gravestone caretaking. The cemetery was a perfect classroom with a variety of stones and carvings for the hands-on seminar.

The oldest of the nearly 1,000 stones in Woodstock’s oldest cemetery marks the final resting place of Lieutenant Edward Morris. His name is legible, but the stone is showing its age after 324 years. The same can be said for many of the stones in the town’s oldest cemetery. 

Woodstock relies on a sexton to care for the cemetery. The problem is there is little money to do the repair and maintenance work required to keep the stones in good shape. Few towns in the area have sufficient money to do the work. Most rely on volunteers.
Thankfully there are those drawn to the task because of historical interest and familial concerns.  Don Froelich is one of them. He is the sexton of Barlow Cemetery. Some of the stones in it belong to his parents, grandparents and aunt.

“Their stones are not okay,” he said. Before she died, his aunt charged him with the mission of caring for the stones. “She said I’d be the only one with interest in caring for them,” Froelich said. “And it’s true.”  So he came to learn from the experts.

Connecticut Gravestone Network Executive Director Ruth Shapleigh-Brown shared some of the knowledge she’s garnered from more than 25 years of burial ground preservation and gravestone studies. She has led workshops for The Association for Gravestone Studies conferences. She provides programs for community members who are interested in, or have been charged with the care of old graveyards.

On Saturday, people came from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and across Connecticut to learn from her. Many were sextons or members of cemetery associations or historical society members. All were fascinated with solving the mysteries old cemeteries and their gravestones offer.

Woodstock Historical Society President Gail White led the cemetery tour. The broken stones, their discoloration from acid rain and inscriptions lost to time, weather and moss leave puzzles behind, White said. She showed them simple fieldstones, quarried stones and obelisks. At first, people used whatever was available for headstones she said. As different carvers were employed, a wider variety of stones were used. Their artistry and carvings became more elaborate. Epitaphs grew longer. Many stones retained the crisp, clear carvings, but many others did not. 

Shapleigh-Brown selected several stones for the group to work on. Some were covered in lichens and moss. They were discolored and their inscriptions difficult to read. One stone had settled into the earth at a sharp angle. Straightening the stone would reduce the stress and make it less likely to snap.

Her tools were fairly simple: spray bottles filled with water, soft plastic brushes, wooden Popsicle sticks, mirrors and old tablecloths. She had a spade and small shovel. The stones she selected to clean were in the full sunlight. She sprayed them several times with water. The sunlight warmed the stone, the water softened the moss and lichens, and the soft bristles didn’t scar the stones.

It was still hard work. Froelich spent several minutes scrubbing a stone with a soft brush. As he scrubbed, details on the stone came to light. Lichens gave way to the outline of a cherub. More scrubbing and careful use of a Popsicle stick revealed the cherub’s eyes, a set of wings with pointy ovals for feathers, and several pinwheels.

Joan Hill worked on an adjacent stone. A member of the Columbia Historical Society, Hill is familiar with the emblems and iconography of old New England stones. The cherub represented an effigy of the soul according to Hill. “It’s winging its way to heaven,” she said. “The pinwheels symbolize eternity. It was a common decoration found in carpentry work. And it was easy to draw.”  

In the meantime, Shapleigh-Brown showed how to use a mirror to better read inscriptions on stones that were sheltered by shade. She demonstrated how to carefully dig along the length of a stone that needed straightening. “It’s been very informative,” Chuck Eaton said. He is the sexton of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Hebron. “I’m looking forward to next week.”

The workshop was the first of two being offered with the cooperation of several Woodstock groups, the First Congregational Church and a grant from the Connecticut Humanities. A second workshop will be held on Nov. 9. Gravestone conservator Jonathan Appell and professor Ted Kinnari will talk about restoration and preservation projects. For more information, go to www.woodstockhistoricalsociety.org or call 860-928-1035.


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