Carving out her niche

Cemetery restoration work is second career after dead-end job.

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TaMara Conde knows where the bodies are buried — and helps to restore the monuments and headstones that mark them.

You’ve probably seen her white pickup truck — she calls it “Betty” after the very-much-alive Betty White — tooling around the Island or parked on Center Street, outside the Tisbury Village Cemetery. 

Conde, through a nearly $10,000 grant from the Tisbury Community Preservation committee, is restoring headstones at the Vineyard Haven cemetery. Community Preservation funds are collected from a surcharge on property taxes, and can be used for historic preservation, open space, or affordable housing.

Conde fixes stones that have been toppled over, creating a more secure base that she builds and brings from off-Island. She fixes and cleans cracked headstones. And she reworks repairs previously done with the “best of intentions,” but not in keeping with the standards and code of ethics set by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior on preservation that she follows.

It’s a labor-intensive job that provides a sense of accomplishment for Conde, who was employed previously in the “what have you done for me lately” fashion industry. 

Conde left the New York City rat race more than 20 years ago, and found herself wandering in a Massachusetts cemetery admiring the artwork engraved on stones, and wondering what was next for her. When someone asked what she was doing, the person pointed out the Association of Gravestone Studies in Greenfield — not far from her New Salem home. She went and became certified, and for the past 20 years it’s become a passion.

“I’m in nature. I’m outside. Nobody is talking back to me,” she told The Times on a recent Monday at the Center Street cemetery after spending the weekend on-Island restoring the gravesites of Mary M. Daggett and Presbury Luce. Daggett’s stone was broken before and restored incorrectly, using the wrong materials: “Ninety percent of my work is fixing work done with good intentions.”

In total, Conde had 20 stones to fix under this contract. She has six left to do, including Elizabeth Hoursel’s, which is cracked and lying on the ground in several pieces near the entrance to the cemetery. She’ll be back one more time before Oct. 15, when the Island’s campground, where she stays to make her visits affordable, closes down for the season. 

Conde has also done work on the Tower Hill Cemetery in Edgartown in the past, she noted, and loves coming to Martha’s Vineyard to help restore and preserve this part of the Island’s history.

The exit from the fashion industry is the short story of how a slight woman got involved muscling around stones that can weigh as much as 165 pounds per cubic foot for granite.

“I did fashion for 14 years. You’re spinning your wheels. It’s always about next season,” she said. “Here, I see something when I’m done. I see a finished product.”

The longer story of her cemetery work is more personal.

Her brother, who was 15 years older, was in a car crash after being discharged from the military. He’d made it through the Vietnam War, and got killed driving home. “His letter made it, but he didn’t,” she said.

Their mother, understandably, spent a lot of time at the cemetery. It’s where Conde learned to read. With a small magnifying loupe given to her by her mother, she studied the rocks used to create headstones. She also recalls visiting a family graveyard in West Virginia that helped stoke her career. “It’s what we did as a family,” she said.

Now she spends a lot of time in cemeteries preserving monuments to history. Her work recently included restoring the headstone of Thomas Nelson in Virginia. Nelson is one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Her work has also included repairing stones at slave cemeteries, which was paid for by a historic trust that’s helped her find other important work in Maryland and Virginia.

Even though Nelson signed that important U.S. document, he is not Conde’s most famous fix.

“My shining-star pride is Abigail Adams,” she said of the famous First Lady buried in Quincy.

This winter, Conde will spend her time plotting her next move, which could include a return trip to Tisbury. (There’s another cemetery restoration project headed to voters at the spring town meeting.)

Paul Munafo, chairman of the Tisbury Community Preservation committee, said cemetery preservation is something the town has invested in for several years. “That’s something, historically speaking, we’re up for supporting,” he said. 

Munafo credits Edgartown cemetery commissioner Liz Villard with pushing for the restoration in Tisbury. Tisbury doesn’t have a cemetery commission, so Villard approached the DPW, and they gave her the OK to apply for Community Preservation funds.

“I’m a gravestone geek,” said Villard, who used to offer graveyard tours on the Island. “They’re so amazing and so full of history. When you walk into a cemetery, you’re walking into the Island’s past.”

Villard is a big fan of Conde’s work. Conde has pretty much been the lone qualified bidder on work in Edgartown and Tisbury, Villard said. “I think her work is awesome,” she said of Conde. “Everything I’ve learned about gravestone restoration I’ve learned from her.”

The Tisbury Community Preservation committee is in the process of reviewing applications for the annual town meeting in April, which includes $20,000 for more gravestone restoration. Munafo said a decision by the committee isn’t expected until mid-November.

One thing is certain: Whether it’s Tisbury or somewhere else, you’ll find Conde in a cemetery somewhere. “From the moment the snow goes away until it starts again, this is what I do,” she said. “I spend my winters looking for new work.”