Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Grave reflections

News of the death this week of British World War I veteran Henry Allingham, at the great age of 112, prompted me to visit Budleigh Salterton’s town cemetery on the appropriately named Dark Lane. After all, they do say that people come to Budleigh to die and then rapidly forget why they’ve come: the result is of course that they live longer than the average in this little oasis of stress-free tranquillity. And there are certainly some great ages recorded on the cemetery tombstones.

Of course some people view this aspect of Budleigh in a negative light: “Today perhaps with some justification it is derided as a genteel backwater, a haven for the frail and elderly to while away their twilight years,” notes the author of Devon Perspectives http://www.devonperspectives.co.uk/budleigh_salterton.html seeing the town as a ‘Demographic Downer’ where a few years ago half the population was recorded as being over 50, with a third being over 70.

I prefer to see it as I’m sure columnist Libby Purves would: as a place of “living monuments”, where, as she wrote in yesterday’s Times newspaper, “History does not lie only in books and journalism, but around us in nursing homes and granny flats.”

Just a few minutes among the tombstones in that Dark Lane cemetery, or a browse in the archives of the excellent Fairlynch Museum, are enough to prove her right. The “genteel backwater” of Budleigh has over the centuries drawn many people here with fascinating tales to tell about their rich and varied lives.

In Budleigh’s sister-town of Brewster, on Cape Cod, they also have a cemetery, even older than ours, which is cared for properly as part of the region’s heritage.


'Brewster Gravestone Guru, restoring cemetery markers'

There are advantages to working a graveyard shift – at least when it’s in a real graveyard.

“It’s a nice place to work,” admitted stone carver Tim Dibble, “very few complaints.”

Above: With the stone repositioned on its base, Dibble takes a momentary break

Not all of Dibble’s clientele is so quiet. He’s been hired by the Brewster Cemetery Association to help restore 300 gravestones in Brewster Cemetery on Lower Road. Dibble started work two years ago and is about to wind it up, looking forward to his last 16 stones as of last week.

“I grew up here,” he reflected (his parents owned The Brewster Store). “I used to play in the cemetery as a kid. I know a lot of the people in here. I have relatives here, too. It means a lot to work here. Everything we’re doing is in accordance with industry standards. I learned from a guy who learned in Boston from the really old cemeteries.”

The work is hard. Dibble has to hoist 500-pound stones up on a pulley, shape up the foundation and reset them atop a pair of metal pins. The pins are what hold the stones upright. Some stones are cracked and require more work.

“The pins they used then were not as good as what we have these days,” Dibble explained.

“The iron ones will rust if moisture gets in and explode the marble. If they’re tilted or knocked over, I straighten them up and re-mortar them. Sometimes that involves epoxy – if they’re broken – space age technology. We strengthen the base, shim it up with bricks, set it down and level it. Then I mix up a batch of mortar, put it on and adjust the pins, set it down, put the sod back in and we’re good for another 200 to 300 years.”

And if that’s not the case, he’ll gladly provide a refund.

The stones also have to contend with trees, some looking to be nearly as old as the cemetery, which dates to the beginning of the 19th century, or perhaps before.

“There was a lot of root damage,” observed Dibble. “They get underneath and lift up and knock over the stones. It’s amazing what a tree can do.”

A huge, gnarled, copper beech sent out one root that completely encircled a stone and flipped it over. Dibble had to cut the root away to reset the stone.

Mrs. Betsey Crosby, wife of Capt. Josiah Crosby, lost her marker, which dates from Jan. 12, 1838. It cracked and fell into the grass and was totally grown over when it was rediscovered and set back upright. The discoloration from untold years beneath the turf was an obvious contrast with her husband’s gray cast stone.

“This is one of the best run cemeteries on Cape Cod,” noted Bob Williams of the cemetery association. “It has a substantial equity, enough to carry on in perpetuity. It’s a friendly cemetery. A lot of people come in and enjoy it. We think we have more sea captains per (acre) than any other cemetery.”

There is an inordinate number of captains’ gravestones in Brewster Cemetery, many without a body below as the unfortunate sailors were lost at sea. One headstone remembers Capt. John Lincoln, who died in the Bay of Honduras in 1829, age 24. Nearby lies Captain Isaac Lincoln, who died during a passage from Texas to New York in 1838.

“Tho on the Earth or on the Sea, our mortal bodies rest, Our Spirits will united be, with Christ forever blest,” reads Isaac’s marker

Old Cape Cod names fill many a plot: Cobb, Baker, Snow, Freeman, Foster, Nickerson, Knowles, Crosby, Winslow, etc. Dibble worked on the stone of Donald Doane, who sold his parents The Brewster Store. He’s carved several headstones in the cemetery himself. He showed off one with a sprig of blueberry and a setting sun cut into the granite.

The oldest stones are slate. Others are New England or Italian marble.

Charlie Baringer, of the association board, coordinated the restoration, marking the stones that needed attention with reflectors.

The association has managed the private cemetery since 1933.

“You’ve got to think we’re proud of it, because we are,” Baringer noted. “It had to be done. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s nice to see it almost finished and back to normal.”

Baringer noted with pride that all 13 board members have a plot reserved, as does Dibble.

Reprinted with permission from The Cape Codder newspaper, Orleans, Massachusetts USA; http://www.wickedlocapecod.com/
Photo credit: Barry Donahue

My book Oundle’s War (1995, reprinted 2008), based on the recollections of the World War II generation, is available at books@oundle.co.uk (Tel: 01832 273523)
See http://oundleswar.blogspot.com/
All profits from sales are donated to The Royal British Legion.

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