In August 2014, Rachel Meyer was trudging through a thicket of weeds at First Parish Burying Ground in Gloucester. After navigating the overgrown vegetation, Meyer reached the gravestones, which were severely eroded and damaged. Unable to get the cemetery, which had been established in 1644, out of her mind, she sought a weedwacker to open paths to the stones.
Immediately, the Ipswich resident gathered volunteers to repair the gravestones, learning new skills along the way. Two years later, she and her partner, Josh Gerloff, handed over the project to the volunteers who lived in Gloucester. In 2016, Meyer and Gerloff then established Epoch Preservation, a gravestone conservation business based in Ipswich.
The pair decided to make it official after one city told the restoration artists that they would need to be a business to utilize grant funding. “We have all these specialized skills. We can’t just not use them,” Meyer said. The business was incorporated in 2022; Meyer serves as the stone conservator with Gerloff as the president.
Epoch Preservation is now funded through Community Preservation Act cemetery budgets, small grants, and private clients. While they mostly work with municipalities and nonprofits, they sometimes work with families who are preparing plots for funerals or need ancestral gravestones repaired.
Now, Epoch repairs more than 250 gravestones a year, working in cemeteries across New England, primarily focusing on Boston, the North Shore, and southern New Hampshire. The projects they take on vary: Epoch has worked in Jewish cemeteries, Colonial cemeteries, and Victorian-era cemeteries.
“Burying grounds are important to preserve because many of them are publicly owned,” said Meyer. “You don’t have to pay an admission [fee] to walk through a burying ground…. . It belongs to all of us.
“This is the history of our community…With gravestones in particular, of course, it’s the art for me, but it’s also what these people represent.”
To preserve gravestones, Meyer and Gerloff use a variety of materials: Lithomex, a high-lime mortar; D2, a cleaning product; and a tripod hoist that they built to set stones upright. “A lot of these techniques, apart from professional training, are learned through conservators talking to one another,” Meyer said.
With the proliferation of gravestone-cleaning videos on TikTok, Meyer noted looks can be deceiving — particularly when it comes to the elbow grease involved in the process: “It gives the wrong impression that…you can just scrub the heck out of [gravestones]. And that they’re not really delicate,” she said. That said, the business still documents its preservation process on Instagram and TikTok, where the hashtag, #gravestonecleaning, many featuring high-speed cleanup jobs on weathered stones, has more than 508 million views at the time of reporting.
Instead, Epoch pays homage to the before-and-after and the sometimes slow and in-betweens of the process with its social media content. One August post featuring a work-in-progress propped between wood planks read: “Still at work in East Boston. This gravestone, which we still need to figure out the name on, like so many others this season needed a prosthetic piece made of restoration mortar.”
Posts featuring completed works will often include the name and dates on the stone, as well as some history of the person laid to rest. “The difference is we’re not making content for social media,” explained Meyer. “We’re hired by people, we carry out the repairs and we share what we did and we hope people find it interesting.”
Usually, a municipality will reach out to Epoch for projects, with many being repeat clients — including Old South Cemetery and Rumney Marsh Burying Ground. To work on the gravestones, Epoch adheres to a set of conservation standards set by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation.
They’ve worked on some complete restorations, like Rebecca Nurse Homestead and Graveyard in Danvers, a 17th-century site where Salem Witch Trials victim Rebecca Nurse and her family are buried. The cemetery features a prominent memorial to Nurse in the center, a memorial to those who defended her during the witch trials in 1692, and more gravestones from the 1700s and 1800s, including George Jacobs, who was executed for witchcraft in 1692.
According to Dan Gagnon, author of “A Salem Witch: The Trial, Execution, and Exoneration of Rebecca Nurse,” who serves on the board of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead Museum, Epoch tended to the cemetery during the summers of 2020 and 2021 — the first time the cemetery has been worked on in about 75 years.
At Rumney Marsh Burying Ground in Revere, a small Colonial-era cemetery with its first recorded burial in 1693, you’ll see death’s heads (winged skulls), soul effigies (winged cherub faces), and willow and urn iconography. Epoch worked on three projects for the cemetery, according to Brendan O’Brien, president of the Rumney Marsh Burying Ground Restoration Committee and a high school teacher in Saugus. He said that Epoch removed some gravestones then restored them after getting rid of potentially harmful trees.
“In some cases, like these old marble stones that are really worn down and greenish looking, they clean them up and they’re white, they’re perfectly legible,” O’Brien said. Additionally, he noted Epoch will look for ways to prevent future damage, rearranging materials: “Sometimes if a stone is leaning in such a way that it’s leaning up against another one, that can create pressure points, and the stone could snap if it continues.”
Meyer also takes on pro bono projects of her choosing; she has about two or three going on at any given time. “This is my artistic side where I look at the world and what’s going on around me and when I choose a project…it’s like I’m trying to send a love letter to someone who’s in pain,” she said.
Meyer also said that cemeteries also tell stories about who was omitted from history; their notable absences can serve as reminders. She said, “There are very few gravestones for domestic staff, enslaved people, Indigenous people.”
Still, Meyer finds comfort in her work. “There’s a kind of a solace for me in cemeteries that isn’t necessarily about memorialization as much as remembering that … these people had a life,” she said. “