Braintree’s Historical Society will finally begin the process of repairing the Elm Street Cemetery after the Preservation Management Plan was released to the town this summer.
The historic burial grounds, which are first mentioned in 1714 in Braintree’s First Parish records, were used by the town to bury dozens of residents through the 19th century. From the pastor’s African servants/slaves buried in 1724 to the local residents buried there in 1857, the land was a popular spot to bury the dead.
The cemetery eventually became more crowded, so much so that General Sylvanus Thayer’s remains were moved to West Point, which his sister finally agreed to “partly because of the overcrowded conditions” at the cemetery, the report says.
Yet despite the historic nature of the land, which the town officially acquired in 1964, and the fact that there is an estimated 266 graves scattered throughout the grassy knoll, little attention has been paid to the property in recent years.
As a result, the aging tombstones sit scratched from lawn mowers and chipped from vandalism, the iron gates have rotted and mark the edge of the cemetery with bent and awkward repose.
The poor condition of such a historic resource was the whole reason for the report, paid for by Community Preservation funds.
“We had been trying to get some work done there for a number of years, and it had come up at a town meeting before the Mayor came into office. Everyone was aware something needed to be done thee. But how do you attack something like that,” said Ronald Frazier, the vice-chair for the Historical Society. “So that’s why we had the survey completed so we know where to go next.”
Although there appear to be many next steps – posting rules for the cemetery, develop a program to reduce vandalism, establish a funding base to repair tombstones and make the area more welcoming – perhaps one of the most important projects is that of community outreach.
“It’s getting people to be aware that it’s going on. People are fascinated by cemeteries, especially old ones, and to learn what has happened, what has gone on there,” Frazier said. “I think there is a greater realization that history is slipping through our fingers, and if we don’t do something about it, it will be gone!”
Cultural Resource Consultant Barbara Donohue, who conducted the research on the cemetery and wrote the report, said soliciting public interest would help maintain the historic resource, if only because people will start to help with its preservation.
“Just for people to be aware how fragile these resources are. People drive by and think someone is taking care of it, and people don’t realize how much time it takes for [the towns] to take care of them,” she said.
Up until now, no one even realized that the grounds were two separate cemeteries combined into one, Donohue said. Additionally, the cultural knowledge that can come from how and where people bury the dead is inexhaustible.
“It’s a wealth of information in these archives in some places - you don’t even realize,” Donohue said. “They tell you about the development of the community. It’s just so fascinating.”
Once there is renewed community interest, the town can begin the process of establishing a maintenance plan.
It’s especially important in light of numerous budget cuts, which usually means cemeteries are poorly maintained or neglected altogether.
“There are stuff in there, you cant do it all at once, but they need to start doing it the right way and getting those in line, safeguarding all that stuff,” Donohue said. “There is a priority listing in the report about what’s most at risk.”
Donohue will be speaking about the cemetery and possible maintenance suggestions at a walking tour of the grounds on Oct. 30 at 2 p.m.
From there, the historical commission will begin to seek state and federal grants, as well as additional CPC funding, to bring the cemetery back to its former glory.
“This was the first step in the process – what we should know about it, what should be corrected, what measures should be taken to properly preserve it,” Frazier said. “It’s going to be an ongoing project for years.”
To view the report, click here.