This time of year, cemeteries in Maine seem to affect two kinds of people: Those who zip by them as fast as they can while holding their breath and those who are drawn to them like moths to flame.
Everyone who is a member of the Maine Old Cemetery Association falls in the latter category.
Founded in 1968 by Dr. Hilda M. Fife of Kittery, MOCA developed out of Fife’s sheer interest in preserving the monuments and stones in a long neglected cemetery near her house.
Within the last 50 years, that interest in preserving old neglected cemeteries in Maine has grown statewide, with more than 800 members from 40 states and several Canadian provinces. Three meetings are held each year in various parts of Maine where the public is invited to hear speakers, tour local cemeteries, and learn about MOCA’s activities.
Jessica Couture, vice president, is one of those who love spending time in cemeteries.
“I walk around in them every chance I get,” she said. “People are fascinated by cemeteries, whether it is the inscriptions, stories of the lives beneath the memorials or the architecture.”
The website lists many resources, including The Maine Inscription Project, started by Roland Jordan, which has an online database of more than a million inscriptions on gravestones all over Maine. As a benefit of their $7 yearly subscription, these records are accessible to members.
The importance of locating and preserving small cemeteries is akin to preserving local history. As the website states: Someone who lived far away with limited time on their hands would be hard pressed to visit (let alone find) a 200-year old family cemetery in the back field of an old deserted farmhouse located a half-mile off the Route 23 county highway road, and 100 feet beyond a cluster of oak trees and bushes, with nothing but a crude slate marker, engraved by hand, that is partially covered by the earth.
“We discover of the existence of old rural cemeteries every day, whether it’s a few stones in the back woods of a farm someone stumbles across while hunting,” said Couture. “A lot of old cemeteries are all along ATV trails because those used to be the rural roads of Maine. You’ll be riding along an old ATV trail and boom come across a neatly trimmed cemetery area with flags in the ground. And we record everything we find even if the directions to get to it were ‘turn left by Mr. Smith’s house and follow the old oak tree by the path’ to get there.”
Walter Guptill of South Thomaston, is one of MOCA’s avid volunteers and he recently assisted in the restoration of a memorial stone engraved with the name Mary Jane Munroe in MacPhail Cemetery in Owls Head, which had toppled over into five pieces.
“Our primary objective when doing restoration work in a cemetery is safety,” said Guptill. “If stones aren’t set properly or are ready to fall over that can be very dangerous. They may weigh 400-500 pounds and fall over on someone. I worked as a volunteer with other MOCA members with this Mary Jane stone, and we cobbled it back together using specific epoxies and then infilled it with a restoration mortar called Lithomex. I’m on the Owls Head Cemetery committee and you have to get permission to do these types of repairs. In six days at MacPhail cemetery, a small group of volunteers, led by a professional conservator repaired and reset 38 stones and cleaned several more.”
Preserving stones is an ongoing passion for Guptill, who is retired. It gives him a great sense of satisfaction to put a memorial stone back together. “I think it is a sign of respect and you can, in some ways, judge the values of a community by walking through a cemetery,” he said. “I hope 100 years from now, someone might see a stone from my family, and make sure it is put right if it needs attention.”
Stay Tuned for Part II
Old Grave Site Reveals Triple Homicide/Suicide from 1900s
Owls Head Historian Walter Guptill, member of MOCA, uncovers the lurid tale of a 1900s triple murder-suicide while researching an unmarked grave.
Members of MOCA often double as amateur genealogists, often submit stories about the deceased that they find through old newspaper archives and library records through MOCA’s Stones With Stories page.
One of the major component to MOCA is to educate the public on how to preserve and care for old monuments.
“A lot of people don’t realize that there are proper cleaning techniques for old gravestones,” said Couture. “For example, never clean with a wire brush or bleach of you risk irreparable damage
Members of MOCA can read more stories about certain gravestones and cemeteries in MOCA’s newsletter and on their website.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org