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A race against time to save history

Tens of thousands of gravestones in New England are crumbling

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / November 15, 2009

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ORLEANS - The winged skull carved into the slate above John Paine’s final resting place is much more than a morbid curio for Robert Carlson, who stoops to inspect the cracked and crumbling headstone in Orleans Cemetery.

Paine, who died in 1731, is Carlson’s ancestor, and the broken, moss-covered marker is more the rule than the exception for tens of thousands of gravestones in New England’s old burying grounds.

“These headstones are falling apart,’’ says Carlson, 75, chairman of the Cemetery Commission in neighboring Eastham. “And the rate at which we’re losing them is increasing.’’

Carlson, who has compiled an exhaustive inventory of Barnstable County’s old gravestones, estimates that 1,100 stones, or at least 30 percent of the markers known to have existed before 1800 on Cape Cod, have been lost to neglect, accident, and the ravages of time.

“They’re not being taken care of,’’ Carlson says. “And they’re getting older and older.’’

The problem is not confined to Cape Cod. With communities across New England buffeted by budget constraints and 21st-century priorities, deteriorating gravestones are a pressing issue throughout one of the oldest regions in the country. But finding the means and will to preserve these remnants of history, preservationists say, is trailing the rate at which nature and vandals are destroying them.

“This is a really serious problem,’’ said Peter Drummey, librarian for the Massachusetts Historical Society. “This should be a deep concern to everyone who has an interest and respect for the past.’’

The stones are important, Drummey and others said, because of their stone-chiseled records of people, local history, and places that otherwise might be lost forever. They also are examples of the earliest New England folk art. And their images of hellfire, bones, and frightening skulls show the weighty effects of an unforgiving life, both inside and outside the meetinghouse pews.

“I think they felt they were all sinners and going to hell, just as the ministers were telling them,’’ Carlson mused.

While some communities pay mere lip service to the decaying history within their boundaries, Carlson has tackled the issue with the fervor of a one-man preservation society. Spurred initially by an interest in the history of his maternal ancestors, the Paine family, Carlson’s research led to a quick acquaintance with the physical needs of old cemeteries from Sandwich to Provincetown.

By roaming Barnstable County graveyards and poring over old records in its town halls, Carlson has been able to compile a list of 40,000 headstones erected on Cape Cod before 1880. And by comparing that data with today’s on-the-ground evidence, Carlson can chart the history that is disappearing from the Cape’s sandy soil.

“I’ll never complete what I’m trying to do. But I’d rather do that than play bridge,’’ said Carlson who has created a website, www.capecodgravestones.com, to display his findings. “Where else can you go out and find a man-made thing that’s 300 years old and touch it?’’

Carlson, who is authorized to clean gravestones, said his work has been aided by the state’s Community Preservation Act, which provides matching funds for cities and towns to spend on historical conservation, among other uses. During the past four years, Carlson said, the town of Eastham has been able to tap $60,000 for its early graveyards, which contain the remains of three Mayflower passengers and many other early settlers.

The preservation fund, as well as state grants from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, have helped many communities assess their cemetery needs. But once those needs are determined, finding the money for improvements and regular maintenance is another, daunting battle. The work is labor-intensive and can reach $400 to $500 per stone for professional work to remove the lichen, repair the cracks, and reassemble any broken pieces, Carlson said.

“It’s obviously a hard thing to fund something like that,’’ said Barbara Donohue, an archeological consultant from Newton who has worked on cemetery preservation in Truro and North Attleborough, among other places. “It varies from town to town.’’

To Mike Trinkley, who directs the nonprofit Chicora Foundation, one of the nation’s leading preservation groups, the recession has given an easy out to municipalities that never had been moved to pay attention to old cemeteries.

“This isn’t a crisis that just occurred simultaneously with the downturn in the economy,’’ said Trinkley, who is based in Columbia, S.C., and has worked on cemeteries in Truro and Dedham. “The crisis was there even during flush times.’’

The issue, he argued, is not about museum-like maintenance of an artifact.

“It doesn’t have all that much to do with historic preservation as it does with simple human dignity and human respect,’’ Trinkley said. “These were human beings, they had families, they had loved ones. You owe that grave the same dignity and respect as someone who was buried yesterday.’’

Carlson, who said he knew nothing about old gravestones before his retirement, has adopted that mantra - in large part because he lives near the remains of ancestors who forged a harsh and hardy life on Cape Cod more than 300 years ago.

As he walks among the scattered markers in Cove Burying Ground in Eastham, Carlson is drawn to a collection of small stones - rocks, actually - clustered in a corner of the cemetery off Route 6. There, bent over, Carlson points to a simple fieldstone, into which has been chiseled the name “Benjamin Paine’’ and “1713,’’ the year of his death.

The son of John Paine, whose broken stone lies a few miles south in Orleans, Benjamin Paine died at 15 years old, another distant relative from the misty past whom Carlson has come to know through his grave. And this marker, the oldest inscribed fieldstone on Cape Cod, tells of a demanding existence where slate epitaphs and carvings - even of the horrors of hell - were neither affordable or available.

But to Carlson, this crude stone is a precious thing of remarkable and haunting beauty.