SHIRLEY -- Eight gravestones in the oldest part of the historic Town Center Cemetery that were in rough shape not long ago look much better now, thanks to an ongoing restoration project by the Cemetery Committee and to the savvy, can-do professional they hired, Kai Nalenz, of Gravestone Services of New England.
Nalenz was on site one recent morning with his helper, Mark Wilcox and ready to wrap up after two days on the job, when Cemetery Committee member Barbara Yokum invited a reporter to join her as she inspected the completed work.
Nalenz will follow up with a report, she said. The project is being paid for with Perpetual Care funds, not taxpayer dollars, she said.
After Wilcox headed home, Nalenz walked from one spruced up stone to another, clearly in his element as he talked animatedly about his work. He described the stones' conditions to begin with and explained in detail what he had done to fix each one.
It will be nice to see upright stones with readable inscriptions, even stone cutters markings, once caked and camouflaged by a couple centuries of mold, mildew, lichen and soil, looking almost new again.
Cosmetic improvements are only part of the story. More importantly, the stones, which the committee had flagged as among those most in need of immediate attention, can now be expected to stand for years to come, cleaned, patched and gently but firmly resettled on their bases.
Yokum, clipboard in hand, referenced file photos with text, documenting the repairs.
Stones and stone cutters markings, once camouflaged by centuries of mold, mildew, lichen and caked-up soil, have been recovered. Inscrutable inscriptions, once blurred by time and all of the above, are readable epitaphs again. It's exciting to see them.
Some of the stones had toppled over but Nalenz couldn't say if it was vandalism or time and weather that did it. "It was a hard winter," he said, and previous repairs had done damage as well.
When a headstone is re-planted in concrete, as has typically been done in the past, a surprising side effect is more damage, he said, pointing to places where the unyielding new material caused an old gravestone to crack at the base. Over time, cracks expand and split the stone.
Another remedy with unanticipated consequences was to install iron pipes to keep tilting stones upright and pin them in place. The pipes rust; corrosion spreads to the stone and it deteriorates. Nalenz said he removes these pipes if they're not too solidly rooted.
His methods and materials are of a kinder, gentler stuff, all according to American Institute for Conservation standards.
Step one: treat the stone with a D-2 solution to wash out lichen. It does its removal work over time, Nalenz said, so no scrubbing.. And his patches are made with flexible fabric. He uses special stone adhesive, or restoration mortar to fill cracks and chipped areas. One of its user-friendly properties is that it can be replaced later without harm to the stone, say in another half century or so.
This old stone had broken in half, Nalenz told Yokum. "It should have been a tablet stone," he said. That is, one that lays flat and stands tabled on legs or a foundation. But at some point it was resurrected as an upright and secured to a base, causing more damage. "High tech" techniques allow him to see the weathered lettering even before the D-2 solution cleans it up, he said. But it will eventually be readable again. "It will brighten significantly over time," he said.
Here and there Nalenz spotted "unusual repairs" on some stones, he said. Others were pointed out to him by a neighbor, Robert Adam, who restores historic houses. Most likely, those rustic fixes were once standard practice, like metal pins bracing a slate stone. "Technology evolves," he said.
Over there, a concrete piece has broken off from a stone's foundation. "It's stronger," and as the darker slate embedded in it expands and contracts, the foundation snugs up tight around the stone "like a steel collar," he said. "Something's got to give." The lime-based mortar he uses is softer. "I'd rather see that fail than the stone," he said.
The cemetery's bucolic setting, dotted with magnificent shade trees and tall pines, has contributed tombstone damage, too.
Here's a place where tree roots split or pushed some stones out of line. There, it looks like tree limbs fell on a few stones below. One disarrayed family plot now clusters around a giant stump. It was once a towering pine tree thought to be over 100 years old when it was cut down several years ago, amid controversy. Asked if the makeover project included rescuing those stones, Yokum said they'd agreed to let nature do it. The stones will keep pushing out until they fall. Trying to pull them free by force would break them, she said.
That approach seems in keeping with Nalenze's restoration philosophy, passed down from his mentor, he said. "Do no harm."
As for repairmen who might have unintentionally caused harm by sticking stones into concrete 60 or 70 years ago, they might actually have saved them in the long run, since the stones might have crumbled away or been carted off otherwise and it was the best bet at the time.