WEST NYACK, N.Y. -- When Ridgefield, Conn., resident Linda V. Allen's genealogy search revealed her ancestor Johannes Vanderbilt was a Revolutionary War hero buried in Rockland County, she began an unintended mission.
In August, she was delighted to find several plots of Vanderbilt relatives at the Clarkstown Dutch Reformed Church Cemetery on Germonds Road in West Nyack but disheartened with the horrendous state of her relatives' gravestones.
"The stones were almost unreadable because of age and dirt," said Allen. "I had to trace my fingers over the inscriptions to see if I could 'feel' the names of the people who were interred. Two of the stones were in pieces. Others were leaning or fallen. Johannes' stone was the most legible."
That summer's day Allen knew she had to do something about the stones in the graveyard, an historic landmark where 23 Revolutionary War and 18 War of 1812 soldiers are buried. The earliest graves date to the 1730s.
Allen hired Will and Lisa Cornell, who run Beyond The Gravestone, a Storrs, Ct. couple gravestone restoration outfit. The husband-and-wife team are trained in the art of headstone cleaning and repair, lichen removal, monument leveling, and preservation.
This winter, they are working on restoring nine of Allen's family headstones, all Vanderbilt descendants. The stones are in bad shape. Old marble or brown stones deteriorate because they eaten away by acid rain, lichen, and the passage of time, vandals, and falling debris. They return to lime and calcium, "literally turning to dust," says Lisa Cornell.
Allen said many stones in West Nyack's historic graveyard are in terrific disrepair.
"I'm hoping the work I do for my ancestors will compel other families to do the same," said Allen. "For me, this mission is about preserving my little plot of history, but I see a greater mission here. Many buried in this cemetery fought for our freedom. We need to do something to honor the memory of these early patriots."
Before motorized lawnmowers, sextons, or graveyard keepers, used animals to pasture cemetery lawns. Families used to come to graveyards to picnic and care for family headstones.
"People stopped hanging out in graveyards," said Cornell. "It came to be seen as a morbid place rather than a reverential one." Lawnmowers and neglect have tossed around gravestones and buried bones over the century.
"Putting them back together again is like doing a puzzle," said added.
Beyond the Gravestone is one of just a handful of companies in the northeast that do historic gravestone restorations. They charge $100 for a consultation. When hired, they not only clean up the stones, they search and/or unearth missing pieces of the gravestone.
Allen's family stones will be re-installed in the spring.
The Vanderbilt descendant is hoping to attract an Eagle Scout group, or any volunteers, to form a cleanup team for the graveyard. Anyone who is interested should call the Dutch Reformed Church at 845-358-4320.