“I always loved being in cemeteries,” says Barb Baird of Cabot, “but algae-covered stones always bothered me, and I wanted to do something.”
Baird identifies herself as a taphophile — a person with an interest in tombs and burial places, and she’s made it her mission to clean headstones to reveal the names, dates, and carvings hidden beneath years of detritus.
“As I clean, I think about the times, and the person. Children’s stones are sometimes neglected, and so I’ve been drawn to them, thinking ‘You think you are alone, but you are not.’” She also finds veterans’ graves and cleans them so that the names are once again visible, which many Vermonters still do on Memorial Day.
Baird notes the changes in headstone materials and art when exploring old cemeteries. Earliest in many Vermont cemeteries are slate markers from Puritan times with skull and crossbones, angel faces, and warning verses. In Victorian times, the urn and weeping willow mark the most common mourning motif. Over time, the easily damaged slate gave way to more sturdy marble monuments, then, in the early 20th century, polished granite was preferred for its beauty and sturdiness.
“In Vermont, cemeteries are often in the most gorgeous places, and more people should visit them, to walk through a kind of outdoor museum with interesting epitaphs and local names,” Baird said.
Baird often notices people walking in Barre’s Hope Cemetery, full of beautiful granite sculptures, but recommends visiting smaller rural cemeteries, too. (See list below to get started.) From 18th century burials in churchyards, graveyard design transitioned to garden settings, with beautiful plantings and benches. People spend afternoons picnicking and strolling, perhaps visiting a loved one’s grave; and frequent visitors often deter vandals, Baird notes. (Do not lean on monuments and clean up after your dog!)
What are tips for cleaning a stone? Baird’s main ingredient is water and elbow grease, but she cautions that “some training is needed. Well-meaning folks can do harm; sandblasting or pressure washing can damage the integrity of the stone over time.”
On a typical grave-cleaning day, Baird loads her car with gallons of water and a manual sprayer, as rural cemeteries often lack access to running water. Each area of the stone needs to be kept wet as the cleaner works with a soft brush or plastic scraper (no metal).
“I clean gently as if I were working on the hood of my car. Old stones do not have to look new. They keep a patina.” A biocide, D2, which is nontoxic to mammals, soaks in and eventually lifts the lichens and the moss.
Baird sees evidence of pollution on stones near highways, acid rain on porous stone, or a growth of moss on graves under trees. Sometimes the biocide needs to be reapplied and allowed to soak, then more can be lifted with a toothbrush or scraper.
Baird does not work in winter. The water can freeze and crack the stones. Nor does she clean more recent stones, since they are the family’s property. For old stones, she obtains permission from the town, and consults gravestone mapping and history from the Vermont Old Cemetery Association (voca58.org). The website also features a field guide to cleaning headstones.
In a few instances, Baird has used an online ancestry service or the local historical society to gather information. A Plainfield family from the 1860s (parents and three children) had willed their plot to the Episcopal church for the tending of the grave. Since the church no longer exists, she was able to clean the stone. From an obituary, she found the daughter of a person marked by a marble headstone in Cabot and got permission to work on it. But usually it is the oldest graves that draw her attention.
Baird jokes “When I visit a new town, I ask myself ‘Where are the dead people?’” There are famous places with famous people, such as Pere Lachaise in Paris, and interesting cemeteries in New Orleans and Savannah, Georgia, but smaller, rural cemeteries can be just as rewarding.
“Tombstone Tourism” is apparently a goal for some travellers, sometimes for ancestor-hunting, to honor the war dead, or to learn more about an historical period. Ground-penetrating radar can help locate graves that have been moved, such as in the Janes Cemetery in Calais.
Many people search out the graves of enslaved and indigenous people, as well, to locate lost or unknown burial sites. Baird tells the story of Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” who located the final resting place of African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, an unmarked grave in an overgrown — and formerly segregated — Florida site. Granite was chosen to mark Hurston’s grave, and now visitors make pilgrimages.
As she explored and cleaned the stones, did Baird experience any paranormal occurrences? After she cleaned the headstone of a two-year-old child, she heard a voice in her head: “Will you do my parents too? They loved me so much.” When the child’s voice came a second time, Baird returned to care for the parents’ graves. Her experiences have not been of the spooky variety, she says, but rather provide a meditative and useful work, and, she remarks, “an excellent activity for COVID times.”
Barb Baird’s recommendations for area cemetery visits:
Bartlett Hill in Plainfield
Hope Cemetery in Barre
Sanborn Cemetery in East Hardwick
Durant Cemetery in Cabot
Mount Pleasant in St. Johnsbury
For more information, visit Vermont Old Cemetery Association at voca58.org.Linda Radtke lives in Middlesex. Her parents chose to be buried in the same cemetery they used for “private time” during their courtship days in 1942.