Thanks to state grant money, the Town of Woodstock is able to take advantage of a Hoosick Falls man’s expertise to save more than 200 gravestones in the most dire need from the ravages of time and neglect.
The town took over the Woodstock Cemetery from the defunct Woodstock Cemetery Association in 2018. To help towns assume control of fiscally insolvent cemeteries, the state Division of Cemeteries has a fund that allows municipalities to submit a sort of wish list of items that need addressing. As part of that program, Woodstock was awarded $65,000 to hire Joe Farrannini of Gravestone Matters to refurbish grave markers in the oldest part of the cemetery. The town also received some $200,000 to address other needs including resurfacing of the loop road and desperately needed repairs to fencing and other areas.
“Most of these have just toppled with neglect over time,” said Farrannini, who spends 12-hour days working in the cemetery. He took some time from his work on a recent Saturday explaining the process as members of the town Cemetery Committee carefully cleaned lichen off some grave markers in an effort to reverse the damage to the rock materials originally used.
“Everything needs maintenance and if it doesn’t get it, it falls apart. What would happen to your house if you didn’t maintain it for 100 years?” Farrannini said.
“A lot of these have bluestone underneath them that are two or three inches thick for a foundation. And that’s not like today where we put a concrete footing in four feet down to get below frost,” he said.
“So you got frost, you got natural subsidence of the soil and you got erosion from the hill — a lot of different factors. The lawn mowers and trees… cemetery stones are being attacked all the time.”
Combined with neglect and erosion over time, the practices used to set gravestones in place were different and have led to deterioration. Some toppled gravestones you’ll see in a cemetery are caused by vandalism, but it can often be caused by the type of construction, “Farrannini explained.
“Probably based on the deterioration, they didn’t use mortar. They used sulfur to set these. I found it and several of the other stones where the pins were set in sulfur,” he said.
“And sulfur is the problem and acid rain that decays the marble, so if you put sulfur inside the stone, you’re going to deteriorate it from the inside out,” he said.
“Based on the amount of deterioration, it was either a really low-quality marble, a sulfur set or both because it’s literally just crumbling.”
The sulfur combines with environmental forces to react with iron bins that were used at the time to secure some of the larger monuments to their bases, he noted.
As the iron rusts, it expands and splits the rock.
“That pin was breaking that 14-inch piece of marble,” Farrannini said, pointing to one monument.
“It literally was splitting that right in half and going this way as well, from two half-inch pins that were in there it was just literally sulfur. The sulfur and the expanding iron, just blowing it out,” he said.
Good intentions combined with a lack of knowledge has led to deterioration of many of the stones Farrannini is now tasked with restoring.
Many of the gravestones are connected to their bases with mortise and tenon joints that were designed to fail in order to preserve the gravestone, but repair efforts compromised them.
“These joints are supposed to be sacrificial,” Farrannini said. “Your joint material, your mortar should be softer. They should be allowed to topple or start to lean and then you repoint that before it falls over because the tendon in theory would hold it off.”
For stones that have toppled and broken into two pieces, Farrannini uses a strong epoxy that is resistant to moisture. If the two pieces are eroded and no longer fit together, he may use a pin, but it is something he avoids.
“This one, somebody came in and Portland (cemented) it back in, which damaged the stone even further,” Farrannini said. “It traps more moisture. It doesn’t breathe and creates a lot of other problems.”
Aside from restoration, Farrannini said his role is also to educate the current and future caretakers in proper maintenance. Well-intentioned people can do more damage than good with overly-aggressive cleaning techniques, he said.
“There are monument companies doing that — pressure washing and sandblasting to make then look pretty for awhile, but how deep is the lettering? You’re taking off another layer.”
History should be preserved
While Ferrannini’s work involves preservation, it only goes so far. He does not believe re-engraving the gravestone is necessarily the right thing to do.
“It’s an ethical issue because this is a really an artist’s work. I call it conservation. I don’t do restoration,” he said.
You would conserve the Mona Lisa, but you wouldn’t repaint it because she’s starting to fade a little,” Farrannini added.
“Through photographic records, that’s the best way to record things and it gives you the current conditions to evaluate for the future.”
Farrannini said he is in favor of the family placing a smaller, more basic marker beside or in front of the original stone with basic information to preserve the record, but feels the existing one should stay in place.
If you’re interested in helping clean the gravestones using low-impact techniques and learning some local history in the process, the town Cemetery Committee could use your help. Contact Town Supervisor Bill McKenna’s office at (845) 679-2113, extension 17.