Sunday, July 19, 2020

Cemetery Restoration at the Jersey Shore

Summer 2020. COVID-19 summer. Vacation with the fam. Brigantine, New Jersey, just north of Atlantic City. Cemetery visitation plans: Atlantic City Cemetery and maybe another. Maybe Winslow Junction – train graveyard, or Fleming’s Junkyard, last resting place of all other modes of transportation. Except the rental condo was infested with bugs that bored into my skin and drew blood. The pool was also closed for the season, which was not mentioned on their website. Sweet. 

I’m a high-functioning individual with good insight and a positive outlook. Therefore, we packed up the plantation and moved further north. On to the Coral Seas Motel in Beach Haven, New Jersey, on LBI, i.e., Long Beach Island - my go-to Jersey Shore vacation spot for about 35 years. Coral Seas tells us their pool is open and they have no bugs. Ambrosia. No wait, that’s food, isn’t it? No matter, the custard is better on LBI anyway. Beach Haven is only about fourteen miles north as the crow flies from Brigantine. As the car drives, however, it is a sixty-mile inland journey up the coast. 

Manahawkin Baptist Church, NJ
Manahawkin Baptist Church, NJ
Once we were settled, pooled, and availed ourselves of a bug-free night, I planned a new cemetery jaunt. About ten miles north toward Barnegat Bay, there are a few cemeteries on Route 9 shown on the Internet.  So, I woke up at 6:30 am and headed north. (“Up, Sluggard, and waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.” Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1741.) Passed my favorite church graveyard, Manahawkin Baptist Church in Manahawkin, NJ (where I swear I saw Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde a few years ago, walking around with a guy who was carrying a guitar case). Even though the sunrise light was AWESOME, I figured I’d catch it on the way back (always NEVER do this! You can never set foot in the same river twice). 

I hit the Barnegat Masonic Cemetery after passing an amazing looking outdoor nautical antique dealer which I didn’t stop at. Drove around the cemetery for a few minutes and realized I’d been there before. Locale wasn’t familiar, but the headstones and monuments were. I’m kind of freewheeling this blog while I’m drinking “Spirits of the Apocalypse” bourbon, trying to drain the bottle so I don’t have to use valuable storage space in the Saab on tomorrow’s trip home (my ten-year-old daughter won all kinds of arcade toys that will take up precious cargo space). 

So I sped off up Route 9 to the next graveyard on the eMap, something called Old Waretown Cemetery. Had a heck of a time finding this. The eMap on my iPhone showed the cemetery plain as eDay, but all I actually saw was a patch of woods with a vacant lot next door. I drove around the lot thinking the cemetery was forgotten in the woods, when it occurred to me that it might be accessible from the other side of the patch of woods, the road less traveled. That’s when I saw the green sign you see at the beginning of this essay.

"Olde" Waretown Cemetery on Barnegat Bay, New Jersey

The cemetery, penned in on three sides by pine forest, was at the end of a short street. Houses lined one side of the street and an industrial garage on the other. A garage worker was starting his day and paid me no mind. I docked the Pequod at the end of the street and got out. The pine-sheltered graveyard was only about a quarter of a city block in size, and had many old headstones, Revolutionary War Veteran medallions, and U.S. flags on some graves. The only thing that really stood out was the restoration setup in the middle of the graveyard – and the moss. The property was so shaded by the tall trees that moss grew thick on the sandy ground. It was like walking on a thick soft carpet.

Repair and restoration of headstones

Revolutionary War veteran's grave marker

Soldiers, sailors, and early settlers of the area are buried here. Some stones date to the early 1800s. Many were just moss-covered nubs of stone, they were so weatherbeaten. The snow, rain, wind, and sandblasting caused by the latter, all work to erode these marble, slate, and brownstone gravemarkers. 

Many were broken, but someone, or perhaps a group of people are trying to save them from being buried like the people whose graves they mark. The restoration of two of the stones here is being conducted in a highly professional manner. Clamps, epoxy, supporting structure, binding straps, etc. A laborious enterprise, to be sure, and without a doubt, a labor of love.

Headstone with matching footstone
Another repaired stone, this one recently reattached to its base, was accompanied by a matching footstone! This may be old news to many of my readers, but I just learned of this custom in June, 2020 at the Life and Death Event created by Tania Kirkman. This was a mostly online three-day event with dozens of lectures (with this one given by me) related to death and all its trappings. 

At Life and Death, a friend of mine, Brenda Sullivan of The Gravestone Girlsgave a presentation entiltled, “Welcome to the Graveyard: A Tour of Cemetery Art and History.” She covered American burial practices and cemeteries from the 1600s to the present day. Brenda explained that for a certain period of time, it was popular practice to mark both the head as well as the foot of one’s grave, with both stones facing east. The thought being that on Judgement Day, when Christians emerge from their graves they emerge headfirst in the proper direction to face their maker! Also, the two stones effectively mark the boundary of the grave, to prevent accidental excavation. 

The head and footstone in above photo are about six feet apart. On a nearby child’s grave, the stones were about three feet apart. Footstones typically have the initials of the deceased engraved on them. As you can see in the photo above of William N. Smith’s headstone, his footstone bears the initials, “WNS.” I had seen these small stones many times over the years and naively thought they were simply inexpensive grave markers. The obvious has a way of eluding me at times!

Broken headstone epoxied back onto its base

It was getting to be about 8:30 a.m. and I needed to be back in Beach Haven to pick up pancakes for my daughter from Uncle Will’s Restaurant, so I headed back to my car. As I drove out to the main street to leave, I stopped to photograph “The Olde Cemetery” sign. Two men were standing in the adjoining yard. I said hi and asked them if they knew who has been repairing the grave markers. With facemasks on (this being the Summer of COVID-19), I could barely make out what they said. Sounded like “Bill Watt, and he had volunteers helping from the local VFW.” So Bill, if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear your story. Great work.

Sheetrock grave markers at Manahawkin Baptist Church graveyard 

On the way back, I did stop at the Manahawkin Baptist Church to do some photography, but as they say about the past, it had passed. The early sun was no longer early enough. I walked around a bit, spooking rabbits at silflay that tore across the open spaces. Something new to my eyes was this family plot with five of what appeared to be gravemarkers made of sheetrock! Obviously, someone went to a lot of trouble to make them – and to attach wooden letters spelling out the names of the deceased. However, I cannot imagine they will weather very well.

Many of the graves in these Jersey shore cemeteries could be anywhere - Missouri, Montana, Minnesota. However, there are some occasional concrete, or maybe granite, reminders that they are close to the ocean. As I left, I walked by the maritime version of Potter’s Field, a square area roughly 150 feet on a side, with a large granite central monument to the "Unknown From The Sea.”

Read more about the history of Old Waretown Cemetery here.