Serious questions: behind the scenes at Wiltwyck Cemetery

Walter Witkowski at Wiltwyck Cemetery. (Photos by Dion Ogust)

And they took counsel, and bought the potter’s field with them, to bury the strangers there.
Matthew 27:7

“How many people are buried here?” All. Walter Witkowski steers a green sedan down a grass-covered dirt road, looking for the row of gravestones where he recently stopped. Here, in the old section of Wiltwyck Rural Cemetery, the burial plots are arranged in blocks divided by avenues and streets, much like the East Village in New York City. Here, hand-carved sculptures replace apartment buildings.

The limestone obelisks depict death shrouds, soapstone orbs and granite crosses. Marble angels watch with open marble eyes.

“Here we are.” Walt just stops along the correct row and pushes the gear selector into park. He gets out and walks around the chest looking at the sun. Her hair is white and the skin on the back of her neck is red. He sports a mustache trimmed for the summer, all that’s left of his winter beard?

“I should have put sunscreen on my head. Even under that baseball cap.

For the past 15 years, Witkowski has taken time from his earthly affairs to tend to the condition of the dearly departed. Whoever they were, he embellishes their tombstones.

Walt is a volunteer. Nobody pays him for what he does in Wiltwyck.

He opens the trunk and pulls out two five-gallon buckets. He fills them with water from a lawn faucet.

“First, you check the condition of the headstone,” he explains. “You test the surface with your fingertips. Then, if you’re more confident, with a toothbrush. Make sure nothing wants to fall apart. It would be a disaster. Once you are sure, the second thing is that the tombstones are thirsty. You have to let them drink before you start. They soak the water up to the surface.

He brings the buckets to the first tombstone. A third bucket is filled with various liquids, scrubbing brushes and gloves.

Wiltwyck Cemetery.

Guidelines for cleaning stone are set nationally by the Concrete and Masonry Association, whose recommendations Walt takes very seriously. Everyone in this kind of concert does it.

Bleaches or hydrochloric acid are too harsh. Metal brushes are prohibited.

Rural Cemetery Superintendent at Woodstock,” Walt said as he poured water over the headstones, “he only allows Dawn dish soap.

Suspenders on an old cotton shirt and pant combo make up his work attire. He wears thick, dark, wraparound sunglasses.

As he gently scrubs the stones with a nylon bristle brush, Walt recalls. “I started by restoring stones from the Civil War. I started cleaning them. Recognize and remember our Civil War veterans, you know. I owe the present to the past. And then I started noticing the children’s stones, and I couldn’t help cleaning them. And now I come here and before you know it, it’s “Hey, what about me!” “Hey, over here.” “No, me first!”

“They all start talking. So I come here for the clean air and exercise,” he winks, “and for conversation.

The markers are placed upright in samples of bright green grass. Shadows fall on rolling lawns near trees both singly and in groups. Blue spruce. Red oak. White oak. Pine.

A tree has a lifespan and will pass away like other creatures. Hickory. Cedar, crabapple and dogwood.

Apart from loggers, arborists and sawmill operators, few people know that the center of every existing tree is already dead. The part of the tree that continues to live grows around it, making it thicker each year. Thus is created the ring register from which the age of a felled tree can be deduced.

The tombstones that Walt works on have life and death dates on their faces.

Dates over two centuries ago belong to Edward and Johannes Freer. 1848-1850 and 1866-1867 respectively.
There is a slow oblivion that happens in a cemetery. Lichens and molds, sooty gold and lifeless, bloom and feed on the stones, covering them, erasing first the names and then erasing the engraved fact, which is the physical memory.

Walt brings them back to the sun.

Three tombstones had been watered and prepared with the solution. Two had been cleaned. Mildew and moss removed easily.

One had been put back in the sun. A returned name. Emma Freer, 1845-1915.

Wiltwyck Cemetery Superintendent Matthew Sirni wears his dark hair cropped short and his button-up shirt tucked into his trousers. His eyes roam the green hills of the cemetery landscape. As he speaks, he spices up his conversation with heartfelt words like “compassion”, “emotion” and “respect” without even blushing.

“Oh, we know he’s there. I try to encourage community participation. We don’t really have the payroll. A volunteer like Walt, he says, is an invaluable resource. His knowledge of who is buried here, his knowledge of history. We owe him a debt of gratitude.

But what about this aesthetic that sees a decaying beauty and to which a ruin belongs?
“There are people here, you know, who may not have family. Who are forgotten”, replies Sirni. “There are tombstones here whose names have completely disappeared. I would say that less than one percent of these headstones are cleaned on a regular basis, over the course of five or ten years. Walt who comes here once or twice a week is responsible for less than one percent. There will always be beautiful ruins.

A light breeze blows through the pines hanging motionless against the sky. Other than the chirping of birds and the lazy hum of a distant plane, all is quiet.

Walt ends with the three tombstones. He looks around to check for forgotten items scattered on the grass.

“In 2005, I met Seward Osbourne, who is a Civil War expert, at a conference I attended at Stone Ridge in Marbletown,” Walt explains. “We became friends. I ended up saving a cottage. It was in disrepair and it was Ulysses S. Grant’s cottage where he spent his last days. Where his son took his pocket watch. Arrested the clock when he died.

“You heard that line from George Thomas?” he questions. “General during the Civil War. A chaplain asked him, should we bury Confederate dead by state? The general says, “I’m sick of states’ rights. Mix them. Walt laughs and picks up his buckets.

“Here you gotta see this,” he said, leading the way through the rows of headstones. “Here is this guy. Just 24 years old. Jacob Schoonmaker.

The worn headstone carved from soft marble glistens like quartz in the sun. An engraved date can be weakly deciphered. January 2, 1881.

The headstone was erected by Sahler, Hook and Ladder Co., now defunct.

And the name. Jacob Schoonmaker?

“There is a memorial to fallen firefighters in Albany. A wall with the names of firefighters who have perished in the line of duty. Jacob Schoonmaker was a firefighter. He died in the line of duty, but somehow they missed him. His name is not there. The superintendent is clearing things up.

The firefighter was killed when a brick wall collapsed at the scene of a fire that broke out on North Front Street in the Stockade area. Newspaper reports printed in the daily freeman state that “the fire had been burning for several hours due to a lack of water”.

It was 140 years ago. The city had “rejected the installation of an underground water supply system in the region”.

Neither Potter’s Field nor Golgotha, Wiltwyck’s Rural Cemetery is more in keeping with the exact definition of the Greek language, from which comes the word cemetery: “Sleeping Place”.

There is the type of person who travels to the “current” center of a city and calls noise complaints against loud bars. The calm they yearn for is here.

“My mother was Protestant,” says Walt. “My father was Catholic. But there is no religious connection to my knowledge. Or if there is, it’s probably a Protestant thing. You know, do your good job. You don’t dance or wave your arms. It’s like charity. Well, I hope someone else comes after me. I can’t do this forever!

He’s laughing.

“My wife and I have land here.”


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