Volunteers work to preserve history by repairing gravestones

The ongoing work of repairing heritage grave markers in Chatham-Kent continues thanks to volunteers with the Chatham-Kent Cemetery Restoration Project. From left are volunteers Les Mancell, Bruce Warwick, Peggy O'Rourke, Tom Moore, Tom Mallard and Collin Mardling, supervisor of Chatham-Kent cemeteries. Restoration work took place at Maple Leaf Cemetery in Chatham on Sept. 22. Ellwood Shreve/Postmedia Network

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Cemeteries not only provide a resting place for the dead, but their gravestones form a historical reference about the past.

Yet time takes a toll on gravestones and cemetery monuments.

A group of volunteers with the Chatham-Kent Cemetery Restoration Project has been working on repairing and realigning many of the gravestones at Maple Leaf Cemetery in Chatham. They also have plans to do some work at Evergreen Cemetery in Blenheim.

Bruce Warwick, a driving force behind the group, said volunteers are going through these cemeteries “looking at all the leaning stones, dangerous stones, stones that are laying on the ground, stones that we don’t want lawnmowers driving on top of, and we’re straightening them up and repairing them.”

Most of the gravestones that need repair are in the 150-year-old range, he said.

While the volunteers do a lot of work, Warwick said the group receives expert help from Sarnia-based Memorial Restorations, which he describes as “the premier operation in the province.”

Warwick said the company has the expertise to repair and restore large stones, some weighing anywhere from two to four tonnes.

“We follow a very strict protocol of how to repair a monument with this kind of history and heritage,” said Tom Klaasen, owner of Memorial Restorations.

He said the process involves taking sections of the stone apart, installing a new permeable foundation, along with cleaning between each level and adding new sealer and spacer when putting it back together.

“I bet we probably touch a thousand monuments in a year,” Klaasen said, adding the company does work across Ontario in both municipal and private cemeteries.

When asked about the importance of preserving this history, he said, “I think the answer to that question is: ‘How much importance do you put in history and heritage?’”

Warwick said the need to repair and restore gravestones is ongoing.

He said the cemetery restoration project is fortunate to have a municipal council that “genuinely recognizes the significance of heritage” as well as cemetery administration that appreciates the benefit of having a volunteer group willing to do this kind of work.

Warwick figures that well over 200 gravestones were repaired from Sept. 21 to 25.

The work of the cemetery restoration group “got started quite aggressively” just after the year 2000, he said.

The late John Skakel created the website www.ckcemeteries.ca where about 35,000 stones from among most of the cemeteries in Chatham-Kent are documented, Warwick said.

He said founding group member Les Mancell has done a lot of research for the website.

Not only has the restoration project repaired and restored many gravestones, but it has unearthed many others that fell and were covered for several years by the sands of time.

Looking around Maple Leaf Cemetery, Warwick points to grass covered areas with indentations in the ground, where he knows there are more markers to be unearthed – some day.

He said there continues to be requests to have the volunteer group do work at various cemeteries around Chatham-Kent.

“It’s funny you know, you start with a few stones, then you do the neighbours around it – the next thing you know, you’re out of control,” Warwick quipped.