Shirley cemetery’s toppled headstones get loving care

Toppled by fallen tree, monuments get tender, loving, professional care

Michael Passmore, left, of of the New England Historic Cemetery Restoration Project, with Cemetery Commissioner Barbara Yocum and volunteer Barbara Brockelman at work in Shirley’s Center Cemetery.
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SHIRLEY – If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Maybe not, but it can certainly do significant damage, as a massive old oak tree did when it fell on several graves at the historic Center Cemetery in March, knocking headstones off their bases.

Located on opposite sides of an interior pathway in the oldest part of the cemetery, the toppled stones recently got a literal lift as well as a face-lift, thanks to Michael Passmore, president of the New England Historic Cemetery Restoration Project.

The Cemetery Commission hired Passmore to reseat the headstones and restore their facades, which were so stained with mold and mildew, the epitaphs had become almost unreadable.

Passmore and his volunteer helpers – Commissioners Barbara Yocum and Catherine Lahouse, and Barbara Brockelman, a Shirley Historical Society volunteer whose ancestors are buried here — were working on the White family’s plot, where the fallen tree had displaced a couple of headstones.

One of the stones belongs to George White (1859-1917) one of Brockleman’s relatives. “All my family is buried here,” she said, adding that she continues to honor them on Memorial Day. “I keep up the tradition,” she said, adding that she may be the last one to do so.

The stone next door is that of George’s wife, Laura H. White (1862-1930.) It would also be restored. The work would not be limited to re-seating the fallen headstones, but would also include realigning neighboring stones and cleaning all the facades.

Now a resident of Bolton, Brockelman’s roots in town run deep. Her great-grandfather, William Jubb, whose name stands out in relief on the base of a monolithic stone nearby, was the last living Civil War veteran in town when he died at age 92 in 1934. Jubb’s first wife was Augusta Holden, who died in 1907. “My grandmother was his second wife, Morna Haines,” she said. They lived in the old Holden homestead, which she remembers visiting as a child.

“When my mom died in 1993, the family donated the property to the Trustees,” she said. It was later sold. Other in-town relatives included the owners of the former Brockelman Brothers Market, a Main Street landmark for many years.

For a casual history buff with a penchant for pleasant strolls, it was a fine place to be on a glorious early-fall day: warm, sunny, with the maples, oaks and other venerable trees still standing in the old cemetery displaying their colorful, autumn-tinted leaves.

Even in sunshine, though, there’s an eerie quality to an old graveyard in October. Centuries-old stones, cool quietude, eternal peace undisturbed by the years, just the kind of place spirits haunt at Halloween.

But some of the departed here can rest easier now, with formerly mold-spotted grave markers toppled by the fallen tree back in place again, looking almost as good as new.

When a visitor arrived, Passmore had one base prepped to reset a toppled headstone and was digging down behind it to straighten the structure in place, turning up chunks of rock that were apparently used as shims to level the original foundation.

He replaced the solid stones with gravel, so water percs through soil below the base instead of puddling and eventually causing erosion, tilting it off-kilter.

As Passmore continued his dig, Yocum headed home for a wrench to adjust the crane and Lahouse tended to a stone with the cleaning compound. It cleaned up nicely, quickly. Almost like magic, letters and figures that had all but disappeared emerged on the stone’s facade, like words written in disappearing ink re-appearing on a page.

Passmore, a military veteran from Connecticut, has been in business for two years. He said he’d learned from masters in the trade whose work includes historic restoration projects at Arlington National Cemetery, Gettysburg and others.

Asked how the work he does now has changed over the centuries, he said the biggest difference is in the materials. Passmore uses specialty products and simple but effective tools, like the portable crane he used to hoist the hefty headstone he was working on back in place.

And the cleaning solution. Applied gently with a soft-bristled brush and washed off with water streamed over the surface from a narrow hose, the result is miraculous. The process is swift and silent, and looks almost as passive as ice melt. But this stuff cuts though disfiguring grime and growth like a knife through butter. Almost instantly, names and dates, obscured by time and weather, were readable again. And it continues to work for hours, lightening time-darkened stone in the process.

None of which suggests that early artisans, masons and stone carvers didn’t do it right. A hundred years from now, new and improved methods and materials might make current tools of the trade seem antiquated, he said.