And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.’
— Matthew 27:7
“How many people are buried here? All of ‘em.”Walter Witkowski steers a green sedan down a dirt road overgrown with grass, searching for the row of headstones where he most recently left off. Here in the old section of Wiltwyck Rural Cemetery, the grave plots are organized into blocks divided by avenues and streets, just like the East Village in New York City. Here, hand-carved sculptures stand in for apartment buildings.
Limestone obelisks portray death shrouds, orbs of soapstone and granite crosses. Marble angels watch with open marble eyes.
“Here we are.” Walt stops short alongside the correct row, and pushes the gear selector into park. He climbs out and walks around to the trunk, looking up at the sun. His hair is white, and the skin at the back of his neck is red. He sports a trimmed mustache for the summer, all that remains of his wintertime beard?
“Should’ve worn sunscreen on my head. Even under this baseball hat.”
For the last 15 years Witkowski has taken time out from his earthly affairs to attend to the condition of the dearly departed. Whoever they may have been, he spruces up their gravestones.
Walt is a volunteer. No one pays him for what he does at Wiltwyck.
He pops the trunk and pulls out two five-gallon buckets. He fills them with the water from a lawn spigot.
“First thing you do, you check the condition of the grave marker,” he explains. ”You test the surface with your fingertips. Then if you’re more confident, with a toothbrush. Make sure nothing wants to crumble off. That would be disaster. Once you’re sure, the second thing is, the headstones are thirsty. You have to let them drink before you get started. They soak the water right up.”
He brings the buckets over to the first headstone. A third bucket is full of various liquids, scrub brushes and gloves.
Guidelines for cleaning stone are set nationally by the Concrete and Masonry Association, whose recommendations Walt takes very seriously. Everyone in this kind of gig does.
Bleaches or muriatic acid are too harsh. Wire brushes are verboten.
“Superintendent of the rural cemetery out in Woodstock,” Walt says, slopping water over the headstones, “he only allows Dawn dish soap.”
Suspenders over an old cotton-shirt-and-pants-combo comprise his working outfit. He wears thick, dark, wraparound sunglasses.
As he gently scrubs the stones with a nylon bristle brush, Walt reminisces. “I started by restoring Civil-War stones. I started cleaning them. Recognize and remember our Civil-War veterans, you know. I owe the past the present. And then I started to notice the children’s stones, and I couldn’t not clean them. And now I come out here and before you know it, it’s “Hey, what about me!” “Hey, over here.” “No, me first!”
“They all start talking. So I come out here for the clean air and exercise,” he winks, “and for the conversation.”
The markers are set upright in bright green swatches of grass. Shadows fall over rolling lawns near trees both solitary and in groups. Blue Spruce. Red Oak. White Oak. Pine.
A tree has a lifespan, and will pass on just like other creatures. Hickory. Cedar, Crabapple and Dogwood.
Other than lumberjacks, arborists, and sawmill operators, few people know that the center of every tree in existence is already dead. The part of the tree that continues living grows around it, making it thicker every year. Thus is created the record of rings from which the age of a felled tree can be deduced.
The headstones over which Walt labors wear dates of life and death on their faces.
Dates from over two centuries ago belong to Edward and Johannes Freer. 1848-1850 and 1866-1867 respectively.
There is a slow forgetting which takes place in a cemetery. Lichens and molds, sooty and lifeless gold, flourish and feed on the stones, covering them over, blotting out first the names then obliterating the carved fact, which is the physical remembering.
Walt brings them back to the sunlight.
Three headstones had been watered and prepared with the solution. Two had been scrubbed clean. The mold and moss came off easily.
One had been returned to the sunlight. A name returned. Emma Freer, 1845-1915.
The superintendent of Wiltwyck Cemetery, Matthew Sirni, wears his dark hair cropped short and his buttoned shirt tucked into his slacks. His eyes roam the rolling grass hills of the cemetery landscape. As he speaks, he peppers his conversation with earnest words like “compassion”, “emotion” and “respect” without so much as blushing.
“Oh, we know he’s there. I try to encourage community participation. We don’t really have the payroll. A volunteer like Walt,” he says, “is an invaluable resource. His knowledge of who is buried here, his knowledge of history. We owe him a debt of gratitude.”
But what about that aesthetic that sees a beauty in decay and to which a ruin belongs?
“There are people here you know, who maybe don’t have family. Who are forgotten,” Sirni replies. “There are headstones here whose names have completely washed away. I’d say less than one percent of these gravestones are cleaned with any regularity, over the course of five or ten years. Walt coming out here once or twice a week is responsible for less than that one percent. There will always be beautiful ruins.”
A light breeze blows through the pines hanging motionless against the sky. Other than the birdsong and the lazy buzz of a faraway airplane, everything is still.
Walt finishes up with the three headstones. He glances around to check for forgotten items scattered on the grass.
“In 2005 I met Seward Osbourne, who is a Civil-War expert, at a lecture I attended at Stone Ridge in Marbletown,” says Walt. “We became friends. Ended up saving a cottage. It was in disrepair, and it was Ulysses S. Grant’s cottage where he spent his final days. Where his son took his pocket watch. Stopped the clock when he died.”
“You heard that line by George Thomas?” he queries. “General during the Civil War. A chaplain asked him, should we bury the Confederate dead by state? The general says, “I’m sick of states’ rights. Mix them up.” Walt laughs, and gathers up his buckets.
“Here, you gotta see this,” he says, leading the way through the rows of headstones. “Here’s this guy. Just 24 years old. Jacob Schoonmaker.”
The worn headstone carved of soft marble glitters quartz-like in the sun. A carved date can be faintly deciphered. Jan. 2, 1881.
The headstone was put up by Sahler, Hook and Ladder Co., now defunct.
And the name. Jacob Schoonmaker?
“There’s a Fallen Firefighter’s Memorial up in Albany. A wall with the names of firefighters who perished in the line of duty. Jacob Schoonmaker was a firefighter. He died in the line of duty, but somehow they missed him. His name isn’t up there. The superintendent here is putting it right.
The firefighter was killed when a brick building wall collapsed at the scene of a fire that broke out on North Front Street in the Stockade district. Newspaper accounts printed in the Daily Freeman state that “the fire had burned for several hours due to a lack of water.”
That was 140 years ago. The city had “voted down the installation of an in-ground piped water system in the area.”
Neither Potter’s field nor Golgotha, the Wiltwyck Rural Cemetery is more in the spirit of the exact Greek language definition, from which the word cemetery comes to us: “Sleeping Place.”
There is the type of person who moves to the ‘happening’ center of a city and calls in noise complaints against loud bars. The quiet for which they yearn is to be found here.
“My mom was Protestant,” says Walt. “My dad was Catholic. But there’s not a religious connection that I’m aware of. Or if there is, it’s probably a Protestant thing. You know, do your good work. You don’t dance about and wave your arms. It’s like charity. Well, hopefully someone else will come after me. I can’t do it forever!”
“My wife and I have a plot here.”