New life for old gravestones

New life for old gravestones

Denise Brandenburg, of Woonsocket, left, and Rachel Pecoraro of North Smithfield examine the Thomas Sayles gravestone as they lift it onto its side to begin work. (Breeze photos by Lauren Clem)
Local volunteers take next steps in cemetery cleanup

NORTH SMITHFIELD – In the 1700s, when a resident of the area that would later become North Smithfield died, their body was likely to be buried in a small, family plot. With any luck, and if the family could afford it, the grave might be marked by a headstone made of slate.

That was the fate of Thomas Sayles, who died on Nov. 9, 1754, at the age of 55. Today, the grave rests with about 10 others in a small plot located on private property on Grange Road. Like other historic cemeteries in town, the plot was, until recently, overgrown and derelict, with pieces of gravestones that had cracked over time strewn about and sometimes buried underground.

Over the past two years, a small but dedicated group of volunteers has taken on the task of cleaning up and preserving the town’s historic cemeteries. While much of their work focuses on clearing brush and trees from the largely forgotten spaces, in recent months, a smaller contingent has moved on to repairing the actual headstones they find broken in the course of their work. For these volunteers, piecing together the stories of those buried here is a lot like assembling a jigsaw puzzle as they attempt to literally piece together the gravestones they find.

On a recent Thursday evening, members of the group could be found at the Forestdale Schoolhouse examining pieces of the Sayles gravestone that volunteers had transported there earlier this year. The schoolhouse, used as a headquarters and repository by the North Smithfield Heritage Association, was temporarily transformed into a workshop for repairing the 265-year-old headstone. As of June 27, the group had already been at the project for several weeks, cleaning the slate and securing broken pieces to its base.

“It’s such a slow process,” said Denise Brandenburg, a volunteer from Woonsocket.

On this night, the group had a task to complete. 260 years of rain and snow had opened up a large crack in the side of the gravestone, a product of the constant freezing and thawing of New England winters. While volunteers use an epoxy to attach pieces of stone that have broken off, cracks such as this one are filled with a special grout that expands and contracts to prevent future breaking.

“I think it’s kind of like making an ice cream sandwich,” explained Rachel Pecoraro of North Smithfield, as she prepared to pipe the grout into the inch-wide space.

Many of the steps involved with gravestone restoration, in fact, bear resemblance to everyday tasks as volunteers improvise with tools such as ketchup bottles and plastic bags to repair the minute details on the stone’s surface. Most of the volunteers here have no professional training in restoration work, though a handful have attended training workshops led by Betty and Carlo Mencucci, members of the Burrillville Historical and Preservation Society and local experts on gravestone repair. For most, painstakingly restoring the details of the town’s gravestones is a labor of love, one that connects them to the town’s history and generations of residents past.

“I go in some of these cemeteries and I read these and I try to think how they lived,” said Dennis Ducharme, a North Smithfield resident. “I picture a horse and buggy hitched to a granite post visiting relatives.”

The Sayles gravestone, along with the prominence of the name in local landmarks, offers small clues that its owner belonged to one of the region’s more prominent families. A faded inscription after the name reads “esquire,” an indication that Sayles was either a lawyer or considered a gentleman by local residents.

“It means he had money,” said Ducharme.

Those carvings are almost completed faded from the stone today and must be handled carefully if they are to be preserved for the future. The volunteers use D/2, a solution developed specifically for use on gravestones, to clean away lichens and residue without corroding the stone. When a particular moss proves too stubborn to remove, they gently scrape it off with a credit card to avoid damaging the stone with metal tools.

After filling the cracks along the stone’s surface with grout and attaching the remainder of the broken pieces to its base, the group plans to rebury the stone in the Grange Road cemetery. The work is slow, but there are rewards beyond simply restoring an old stone. Kim Walker, a volunteer from Burrillville, explained how the cemetery workers have gotten to know the landowner who gave them permission to work in his yard, forming a friendship that will last through many weeks of outdoor work.

“It becomes more than just fixing a stone. It’s a lot more than that,” she said.

Rachel Pecoraro uses a squeeze bottle to fill a crack on the side of the gravestone with a special grout. The grout is designed to expand and contract with the weather to prevent future breaking.
Kim Walker, of Burrillville, sprays the gravestone with water as the group prepares to fill a large crack with a special grout.
Assesing the next steps in restoring the 265-year-old Thomas Sayles gravestone are from left, Dennis Ducharme of North Smithfield, Rachel Pecoraro, Denise Brandenburg, and Ed Walker, of Burrillville.