Task Force helps Woodstock maintain cemetery

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

“It’s important to preserve history,” said Theresa Reynolds, chair of the recently formed Woodstock Cemetery Task Force. “By tending people’s graves, it’s giving them some love.”

Woodstock Cemetery, the largest of the three cemeteries on Rock City Road, has been taken over by the town government, as required when a cemetery association no longer has the funds to maintain its property. The Artists Cemetery and Memorial Cemetery, off of the west side of the road on Mountainview Avenue, are still under independent management, but the volunteer task force is now researching how to repair the oldest gravestones at the Woodstock Cemetery, on the east side of the road. 

In recent years, over 200 cemetery associations in New York State have had to give their responsibility to municipalities, including the Town of Shandaken, which took over a local cemetery in 2014. The state government’s Division of Cemeteries has a special department for “abandoned” graveyards, meaning ones that can no longer be supported by their managing entities. “Some people don’t like the word ‘abandoned,’” said Reynolds. “It has a sad connotation.”

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The Woodstock Cemetery Association was established in 1831 and incorporated in 1913. As its membership dwindled, Reynolds was among a committee of Woodstock residents who tried to save the association last year but realized they wouldn’t be able to raise enough money to accomplish their goal. The town took over, and in December, Supervisor Bill McKenna appointed a task force of eight members, including Reynolds, Debbie Hastie, Irene DeGraff, Pauline Criscimagna, Donald Allen, Bruce Eckert, Bob Gordon, and Ken Keefe. Town historian Richard Heppner serves as liaison to the town board. 

It’s become increasingly difficult for cemetery associations to stay solvent as costs rise, said Heppner. “Everyone used to be buried in a coffin, but now there are a lot of cremations, which are much cheaper. You can put four in one plot, or just scatter the ashes, so income from selling plots has dropped. At the same time, maintenance has gone way up, with the cost of mowing and weed-whacking.” Sale of a plot used to include “perpetual care” funding, which was stored away for maintenance, but now that interest rates are so low, those funds are not sufficient to serve their purpose. State law requires municipalities to take over cemeteries if their associations can no longer function.

Under the new arrangement, the supervisor’s office is in charge of selling empty plots. The highway department has been mowing and weed-whacking the grounds, while the task force is charged with responsibilities such as assisting the town clerk to ensure that maps of the cemetery are updated and correct. They are currently trying to assemble a complete set of deeds to the plots.

“When someone’s bought a plot,” explained Reynolds, “they get two copies of the deed, and they’re supposed to sign and return one copy to the town clerk. Often they’re never sent. We’ve been advertising on Facebook and in the newspaper. If people come in with a deed, we’ll make a copy, at no cost to them, and give it back. A few people have come, but we need more.”

In the oldest section of the cemetery, there are graves that have fallen over and broken, while others are tilted. Headstone restoration is a sensitive process, as Reynolds has learned from Joe Ferrannini of Grave Stone Matters, a conservator from Hoosick Falls, northeast of Albany. He is willing to teach volunteers how to perform some tasks, such gluing broken stones back together with epoxy. Headstones can be washed with a biological cleaning agent called D/2. It kills mold, mildew, and lichen that clings to the stone, also clearing away the residue of acid rain and air pollution. Improper cleaning can damage the stone and blur the inscription.  

Complicated repairs would have to be done by a professional. If a stone has come off its base in pieces, for example, the pins holding it to the base may have broken off. New holes would have to be drilled and the pins replaced. “Sometimes,” said Reynolds, “a monument looks solid, but it tips over with a slight push.” Based on Ferrannini’s detailed assessment of the grounds, about 200 headstones need restoration, among them the gravestones of Civil War veterans. “We also found a soldier from the Revolutionary War,” noted Reynolds. 

To obtain a grant from the government for repairing headstones, the task force has to get two estimates from professionals. It’s not clear how much money the state would provide, so there may be a need for fundraising later on in the process. At some point, volunteers will be sought for the simpler repairs and cleaning jobs, and donations will be welcome.

Asked why she decided to serve on the task force, Reynolds said, “I felt something in me needed to do this. I found myself being passionate about it.” Her husband is buried in the cemetery, and so are his ancestors, members of the Short and Reynolds families, who settled in the town centuries ago. When she started researching her own family’s genealogy, she ended up spending hours at St. Mary’s in Kingston, where her first-generation Italian parents and two great-grandmothers are buried. “I found them through cemetery records,” said Reynolds. “One of them has a cement cross that’s over 100 years old. My mother had been painting the cross, and now the paint is peeling off, and I want to know what I should use to preserve it before I’m gone.” 

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