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Effort to clean up cemeteries grows

Stones were cleaned or reset in historic burying grounds.

Steve Haines For The Boston Globe

Stones were cleaned or reset in historic burying grounds.

PLYMOUTH — There is a lot going on at Burial Hill. Young and old gather to socialize, tidy the grounds, and clean gravestones with delicate care. They are all volunteers and part of a growing interest in cemetery preservation south of Boston.

“There is more awareness of the historic cemeteries; people are seeing the fun involved in preserving them,” said June ­Gillette, who with Cheryle Caputo organized a volunteer group called Friends of Burial Hill.

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Until two years ago, Burial Hill, a cemetery founded in the 17th century and a Pilgrim burial site, was hardly in pristine condition, with trash strewn about the grounds, said Gillette.

Today her group of about 80 volunteers, with a steadily rising membership, orga­nizes small walking parties to take care of the site and its more than 2,000 gravestones. A dozen are trained in the process of cleaning a single grave, which can take two hours or more. Volunteers have cleaned 70 graves so far and will tackle more in the spring.

“People come out of the woodwork when they find out something is going on at Burial Hill,” Gillette said. “They love the cleaning. It is just so satisfying to work on a stone.”

In Freetown, too, volunteers are helping to fix up historic cemeteries, said Michael ­McCue, chairman of the local Cemetery Commission. He said the results are starting to show.

“Every one of the town-owned cemeteries are in good shape for the first time in ­decades,” he said, describing a successful cleanup of an overgrown public cemetery that saw its last burial in the 1800s.

At Assonet Burying Ground, six faded Civil War-era gravestones dating from 1864 to 1890 were recently replaced with new stones in an ongoing restoration effort funded with federal dollars, McCue said.

Aluminum signs now mark four of the 50 cemeteries in the small town, population about 9,000, which has seven public cemeteries. One sign identifies a South Main Street site commonly known as Hatheway Cemetery by its historically accu­rate title, Plummer Burial Ground, which has triggered lively local discussion about the site name and research into its history, he said.

“That has drawn a lot of ­interest,” McCue said.

In late November, a series of $1 tombstone stickers sold to customers at Grandpa’s Place, a local convenience store, raised enough money to pay for a fifth sign, he said.

“We’re starting to look at the private cemeteries,” McCue said. “We want to get more of these cemeteries that are sort of lost, found again. We want them to be clean, and we want them to be visible.”

The town is not “a golden city” with plentiful resources but it has heart, he said. “We are a good little Yankee town, and we do our best.”

A shift in local attitudes ­toward preserving old graves has also occurred in West Bridgewater, said longtime resident William A. Kovatis, who spent more than a decade trying, unsuccessfully until recent­ly, to rally the town to label its historic cemeteries.

In the last few weeks, ­Kovatis, 70, was pleased to see oval plaques at the sites of the town’s six public cemeteries, includ­ing one dating to 1685, a modest set of markers that, for him, meant a lot.

The former highway superintendent and resident of 45 years said he had noticed a discrepancy at the cemeteries years ago: The grass would be mowed; the leaves, raked, yet no signs provided visitors with any information about the sites.

His three children, now adults, would ask him: “What is the name of that cemetery down the street?”

“These are historic cemeteries,” Kovatis said. “They are the burial sites of our town founders. If we don’t value them, shame on us. If we can’t take care of our past, how can we look toward the future?”

He engaged in years of vigorous yet unfruitful wrangling with local Historical Commission members, efforts that failed to produce cemetery signs, he said. The cause was perpetually lost, a ­casualty of insider bickering, tough fiscal choices, and more, he said. Yet he never lost faith in the value of the past, and now has outlasted the oppo­sition.

The West Bridgewater Historical Commission, now largely composed of new members, has erected plaques at all the cemeteries, providing a proper name and date of origin. ­Kovatis described the mountings, donated by Turner Steel Co., a local firm, as “very nice.”

But there is more to be done, he said. “We still have umpteen stones that are leaning and cracked and chipped. We should be fixing those up to pay tribute and honor to the people here before us.”

Gillette agrees.

In October, the Community Preservation Committee in Plymouth failed to support a Department of Public Works proposal to use $750,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to repair more than 1,000 crumbling headstones and to refurbish the fencing at Burial Hill.

Town Manager Melissa ­Arrighi said the restoration project is popular among residents, but the funding request was tabled for lacking detail. By all indications, she said, voters will support the proposal when it is resubmitted this spring.

Plymouth is keen on investing in beautification projects in preparation for its 400th anniversary celebrations in 2020, she said.

“There is a ton of support to do work up at Burial Hill. It is very significant to us.”

Gillette said she hopes the funding will be secured, ­because too much is risked by additional delay.

“Burial Hill is just so important as one of the earliest cemeteries in the country,” she said. “It is a beautiful spot.

“The stones, the art, the sculpture — these are our treasures,” Gillette said. “If we don’t preserve the stones, they are lost.”

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.

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