Preserving historic burying grounds without breaking the bank

by Jennifer Goldson, AICP

February 3, 2010: Almost 20 years ago, as a young historic preservation intern for the Newport Historical Society in Rhode Island, I assisted with an inventory of the Common Burying Ground. The experience impressed me on many levels.

Old Hill Burying GroundOld Hill Burying Ground Conservation Project, Newburyport, MA Conservation Project, Newburyport, MATranscribing each gravestone inscription and, in doing so, paying attention to family connections and how each person’s life fit in the timeline of history brought local history to life in a way that my books did not. Beholding the beauty of the carvings and realizing that carvers have unique styles helped me understand that the gravestones are not only documentation of lives lived, but also works of art. Spending extended time at the burying ground helped me appreciate its park-like openness – an openness that provided relief in the midst of an otherwise dense Newport neighborhood.

These elements are in no way unique to this Newport burying ground; many communities throughout New England boast similar places. Unfortunately, many (perhaps even most) historic burying grounds are in dire need of conservation. In Massachusetts, the Community Preservation Act (CPA) provides a significant source of funding to protect and preserve these special places.

CPA instrumental to preserve burying grounds
CPA communities have appropriated over $4.5 million of CPA funds to preserve historic burying grounds and cemeteries. CPA funded projects include a variety of preservation activities: gravestone and monument conservation; restoration of chapels and tombs; stabilization of retaining walls; surveys, inventories, and management plans; as well as rehabilitation of fencing and signage. These projects can be costly, ranging anywhere from a few thousand dollars to over $350,000 depending on the scope of work, but in Newburyport they’ve figured out a way to bring costs down substantially.

Newburyport’s Old Hill Burying Ground project
The City Improvement Society in Newburyport is spearheading a major gravestone conservation effort that leverages CPA funds with skilled volunteer labor – bringing the cost of preservation work at the Old Hill Burying Ground to less than $12,000. The Burying Ground, which was established in 1729, has an estimated 200 broken stones and another 200 leaning stones that are at risk of breaking. At a typical conservation cost ranging from $100 to $500 per stone, this project could have cost anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000.Jonathan Appell, gravestone conservator, trains volunteers at Old Hill Burying Ground

However, CPA funds (combined with funds from the town’s Department of Public Works) have been used, in part, to hire stone conservator Jonathan Appell of Gravestone Conservation in Connecticut to train a group of volunteers in the craft of gravestone conservation. The training includes the proper techniques of cleaning, realigning, and setting leaning stones and repairing broken stones. The training also teaches a preservation ethic - As Mr. Appell emphasizes, “. . . there is no one silver bullet which can cure all ills, but rather a preservation ethic must be established to be used as a guideline to address each individual situation.”

Mr. Appell conducted the training in October 2009 with twenty volunteers in attendance. The volunteers began working in earnest the very next week and have already repaired and stabilized 17 stones. Mr. Appell is scheduled to return in the spring to review progress, help problem solve any challenges encountered along the way, and to conduct training for more advanced conservation techniques.

Jennifer M. Goldson, AICP, is a freelance planner who focuses on helping communities implement the Community Preservation Act. Contact Jennifer at jennifer@jmgoldson.com or 617-990-4971.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, are not intended to be used as legal advice, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Preservation Coalition.

Further Resources...

         >> Read more about this project in a November 2010 article in the Boston Globe.

>> Learn about a CPA burying ground project proposal to repair, clean and reset historic headstones in Marshfield.