12 September 2013

The Cemetery Santa

The meeting had been planned for some time. I had weeks to prepare a list, the task deceptively simple: compile a list of the headstones in Valley Brook Cemetery most in need of attention, repair, conservation or other work.

Sure. I can do that. 

I walked the grounds, reviewed previous notes, flipped through the hundreds of photos I have taken there. I even started to plot the damaged stones on a map. I spent several hours, really, as I wanted to be sure that I was really getting to the most important memorials. My list at the beginning of this walk about at the cemetery started with about twenty names. It ended with so many more.

I was so completely unprepared. 

When I got home, I put this simple statement on my Facebook page:

"Every - and I mean EVERY - genealogist should walk a cemetery with a professional headstone preservationist. I had the pleasure of doing just that this morning, and I learned SO MUCH. Fantastic opportunity, and I am looking forward to working with them more in the next couple of weeks."

And I meant it. His name is David Via, and he is a preservation professional. He travels the country, logging around 20,000 miles a year, traveling from cemetery to cemetery. He is, as he himself stated it, engrossed in the cemetery preservation community. You can see one of the many stories of his work here, on progress-index.com, from August, 2012.  (I've posted this article, as he does not have a website of his own.)

He's been working on Valley Brook Cemetery off and on for the past ten years, starting after a large storm did severe damage in 1997. He has an outstanding memory, considering the number of memorials he touches each year. Remember Bertha's story from earlier this summer? When her headstone disappeared? He knew exactly who she was and where her site was on the grounds, and that was before we even walked away from our vehicles.

As we walked the grounds, he was able to provide commentary on what makes our cemetery unique, the types of stone used to create the markers, and more. We actually came to realize - there were five of us altogether - that our entire cemetery has shifted to the east. When you look at where the markers are from the original plotting process and where the roads are now... they are all off of the original design. We had one of each of us stand at the markers of a corner, and one in the center, and you could physically see the way the landscape had changed.

He was as excited as I was about my newest discovery here, these wooden posts that are inscribed with the various sections of the cemetery. The one pictured clearly states I.O.O.F. and I.O.R.M. on two sides, marking two of our fraternal sections (International Order of Odd Fellows and Improved Order of Red Men). Anything fraternal usually gets me excited, so to have someone else share that with me was a great moment. These markers were not necessarily unknown, but are not included in the vast majority of documentation available on the cemetery, so for many in our local community, this is new information. It was an incredible moment for me to realize that Mr. Via not only shared my passion for the historical significance of these posts, but also for the cemetery itself.

One of the seven section markers I have
been able to locate in the cemetery.
©Ancestral Journeys, 2013.

The post, labelled "I.O.O.F." on one side
and "I.O.R.M." on the other, indicating
the sections for fraternal societies.
©Ancestral Journeys, 2013

Have you heard of the pinky finger test? 

I learned so much from David Via, including the pinky test.  He showed me, quite literally, how an unstable monument can be tilted over with just the force of his pinky finger. The things he taught me to look for in terms of identifying a potentially unstable headstone were truly priceless. He described how to spot those that have had work done to them, and those that need work immediately. The lesson even included a new app on my phone, "Bubble Level." This is a digital version of the classic level, which will tell you what angle the headstone is sitting at. Anything more than 10 degrees, and the headstone needs attention.

The three hours we walked the twenty acres provided, as he put it, a "truckload of information." 
I did my best to soak it up. 

Interior of the sexton house shed walls.
©Ancestral Journeys, 2013.
He gave me suggestions on "properly" photographing a headstone for preservation purposes; because maybe the marker is ok for now, maybe it will last for several more years... but if it has to be rebuilt in ten years, will they still be able to tell what the exact dimensions were?  We had conversations on cemetery folk art and why its important. We discussed the "graffiti" on the interior walls of the sexton house shed. We talked about why Masons follow the customs they do, and how to get our local chapter engaged in the cemetery preservation effort we have put forth (he's a Mason himself). 

I can tell you, membership in the Association of Graveyard Studies has risen to the highest priority on my list. Absolutely. 

My day with David Via, preservation professional, is one I'll be thinking about for some time. I'm looking forward to working with him further, as we'll both be in and out of the cemetery in the coming days. I told my daughter he looked a bit like Santa Claus - and he does - with a long white beard, white hair and the right stature to play the part. I would have to say, he has become my "cemetery Santa."