After three long years, the Edgartown Cemetery Commission was proud to celebrate the completion of a restoration project last Friday for several 17th- and 18th-century gravestones at Tower Hill Cemetery. The project involved documenting each gravestone, and restoring and replacing eroded gravestones. It was all made possible by a bequest from Virginia Frances and Ellen Irene Murray to preserve the gravestones.
Tucked away down a dirt road in Katama surrounded by pine trees, the cemetery is home to prerevolutionary, Revolutionary War, and Puritan graves.
Liz Villard, a cemetery commissioner in Edgartown, led the celebration by guiding tours around the cemetery. “I find that gravestones are a window on the past,” Villard told The Times. “There are a whole lot of people who don’t have an existence beyond their gravestones.”
Alan Gowell, the owner of Martha’s Vineyard Memorials, and Ta Mara Conde, a restorationist from Historic Gravestone Services, helped with the project. Gowell worked on replacing several of the gravestones, and Conde used colored sand to create cement matching the original colors of the gravestones.
Throughout the cemetery the restoration work can be seen on the gravestones of Robart Stone, who died in 1689 and has the oldest gravestone in the entire cemetery, and John Coffin, who built the North Water Street house that now belongs to the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust. One of the replacement stones is for Timothy Smith, a Revolutionary War soldier.
Along with restoration, a complete documentation of all the gravestones, both historic and modern, was recorded, and will be available on the town’s website. Each gravestone will have its own page, with a photograph and information from the Edgartown vital and cemetery records.
Much of the work has revealed the skull and bones, which Villard pointed out was a Puritan motif and had nothing to do with pirates. “The Puritans were very comfortable with death. They knew they were going straight to God, so they put it on there because the body is not important,” she said. Later, when Baptists began to arrive on-Island, they would put a flying soul or angel on their gravestones.
Skulls and bones weren’t the only designs on the gravestones. Some gravestones had sailboat designs, and even an etching of the deceased’s pet cat.
Villard showcased quirks of the cemetery, such as the apparent movement of gravestones. She suspected gravestones were moved to build roads, to add more graves, or from general cemetery maintenance. Many of the headstones have foot stones which lay flat on the ground, and some headstones have footstones that are on the opposite side of the cemetery. “The gravestones move when you’re not looking,” Villard said.
Villard wrapped up the ceremony by expressing her appreciation for the project and how it preserved the memories of some of the first Islanders. Villard’s work comes from a long line of dedicated gravestone enthusiasts, such as Richard Pease, who in 1849 recorded the inscriptions of all the gravestones in the cemetery, making it possible to do the restoration today.
“I’m not the first crazy person who loves gravestones,” Villard said.
For more information about Tower Hill Cemetery and other Edgartown cemeteries, visit the town’s cemetery department website.