Volunteers needed for historic cemetery cleanup

Volunteers needed for historic cemetery cleanup

SMITHFIELD – This Saturday, April 13, a small but dedicated group of volunteers will showcase the progress they’ve made cleaning up the area’s historic cemeteries and invite others to join them in their efforts throughout the state.

Christine MacWilliams, a resident of Woonsocket, serves as chairperson of the Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Restoration and Awareness Day, an annual event now in its fourth year statewide. Every year, members of various local cemetery organizations unite to spend one day cleaning up locations in all 39 communities in the state. It’s an opportunity to showcase their efforts and invite new volunteers to join them in restoring the final resting places of the dead.

For MacWilliams, who also serves on the Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Commission, restoring old cemeteries has become a personal mission. She first became involved in cleanup efforts when she answered an advertisement in The Valley Breeze from the Friends of Smithfield Cemeteries looking for volunteers. The group, like many others in the state, oversees cleanup efforts at historic cemeteries in a specific town. State records estimate there are approximately 3,200 historic cemeteries around the state.

“You make a lot of friends, you really do, because you have the one thing in common, and that’s to put back dignity and respect into these burial grounds,” she said.

In many cases, she explained, historic cemeteries have no formal ownership, leaving their maintenance to volunteers or groups or municipalities that adopt them.

The individual stones are left in the same situation, though a few belong to individuals prominent enough to be remembered over time.

“What happens is most of the family dies off,” explained MacWilliams. “There are no more family any more to come in and care, or they move away.”

She cautioned against trying to clean gravestones without learning proper technique, as some household cleaners can actually further disintegrate stones instead of improving their appearance.

“People, they mean well, and what they’re doing is they’re destroying the stone,” she explained.

MacWilliams encouraged residents interested in learning more about historic cemetery restoration to visit a cleanup site on Saturday and volunteer. She also invited residents to adopt a gravestone or small area of a historic cemetery near their home to help ensure these sites are cared for in the future.

Bob Buonaccorsi of the Friends of Smithfield Cemeteries said the group is looking for new volunteers.

In Smithfield, volunteers will meet at the Conservation Cabin located behind the Smithfield Police Station promptly at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 13. For more information, contact Buonoaccorsi at friendsofsmithfieldcemeteries@gmail.com .

Buonoaccorsi said, “Be prompt or you’ll probably miss us.”

A full list of cleanup sites and local contacts is available on the Historic Cemetery Commission website at www.rihistoriccemeteries.org under the “Events” tab.

Glocester cleanup will occur at the #94 Crossman Lot, half a mile west of Cooper Road behind the Lataille House. Contact Bill Brown for more information at billbrown8686@gmail.com .