Learning to clean and preserve gravestones in Newburgh's oldest burial ground
CITY OF NEWBURGH - Every gravestone tells a story.
But over time, nature tends to cover the details of those stories with dirt, pollen dust, and other things that get blown onto the stone and obscure its message.
Sixteen area residents got a lesson in the proper way to clean and preserve gravestones on Saturday at a workshop offered by the Orange County Historian's office.
Their teachers were cemetery restoration experts Dale and Tina Utter from upstate Chenango County, and the location was Newburgh's oldest burying ground, the Old Town Cemetery, adjacent to Calvary Presbyterian Church on Grand Street.
And the Utters said you only need simple materials to clean a gravestone to make the names, dates and other details carved on them stand out clearly again. Ammonia, bleach and other household cleaners should not be used, as they can damage stones.
"Plain water and a soft brush will do wonders," Tina Utter said.
When the short lesson was done, the "students" went to work with their scrub brushes, and gradually, names and dates hidden by grime for years became legible.
Kristen Verge, of Beacon, who came with her husband Joe O'Brien-Applegate, said she wanted to learn to clean gravestones so she can keep up graves of some family members who are buried in New Jersey.
Steven Baltsas, of New Windsor, said he just wanted to "learn a useful historic preservation skill that I can't learn anywhere else."
But he also said he saw potential for the cemetery, which reputedly dates back to 1713, four years after the first German Palatine settlers founded Newburgh.
"This cemetery could be a real tourist attraction," Baltsas said. "But it should be protected more."
Adam Staiger, of the hamlet of Wallkill, said this was the second time he'd attended the workshop, which the historian's office usually offers six times a year at rotating sites around the county. He said it is "very cathartic and therapeutic to help preserve someone's legacy."
Mary Murphy, who was born in Newburgh but also has a family home in Ireland, where her mother is buried, said now she will be better equipped to keep up her mom's gravestone.
"I've wanted to learn how to do this for years," Murphy said. "Today is my mother's 103rd birthday, so this is a way to honor her."
Dale Utter said besides gathering your very simple tools and materials, there are a few safety checks you should perform before cleaning a gravestone.
First, make sure the stone is sturdy, so there's no chance that if you push on it, the stone will fall over and hurt you or someone else.
Also, make sure the stone does not have cracks or show other signs it might break easily. If it does, move on to another stone.
But sometimes, problems are only discovered after you start the job.
As a bonus lesson, Dale Utter was showing attendees how to reset a stone that has tilted, using the stone marking the grave of Isaac DuBois. But as he and a couple others dug around the stone, they gradually found it had leaned after its collar, which surrounded the stone at its base, had broken.
Utter resolved the problem by removing the collar and burying the stone 19 inches deeper. All of the writing on the stone was still visible above the ground after the work was done.
Johanna Yaun, the Orange County historian, said the gravestone cleaning workshop has been especially popular in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, "because it gives people a chance to get outside and socialize."
There are at least 914 cemeteries in the county, and Yaun said the workshops assist in their preservation.
"We hope we are creating a team of people who have the knowledge to restore the stones, and now they can pass that on to others," she said.
Historic Preservation Classes
Contact SUNY Westchester Peekskill Campus for information about the Historic Preservation Certificate Program