HOPE – New burials have come to a halt at historic Morey Hill Cemetery in Hope as town leaders try to determine who is buried and where. High-tech help could be on the way.
Already, there are fears that the last burial, some eight years ago, may have encroached on or been uncomfortably close to ancient graves long forgotten and of which little or no visible trace remains.
A recent request for use of a burial purchased some time ago has now given some urgency to the matter. City officials are taking the first preliminary steps to determine how to proceed so that the sites and the deceased can be identified and the cemetery can resume burials.
After years of painstaking work to identify burial sites by City Sexton Beth Gindel, and at her request, Hope is now exploring the kind of high-tech help that in recent years has enabled huge advances in archeology and anthropology, among other fields, helping scientists locate everything from human remains to precious artifacts and identify ancient construction sites, battlefields and possibly important religious places.
It’s a somewhat bulky gadget called ground-penetrating radar that looks a bit like a combination stroller, minus the baby, and a lawnmower with big wheels and bulky box-like implements, the one at the handlebars the other suspended just above the surface of the ground.
Driven by a technician, it sends radar pulses downward, where they bounce off anomalies such as voids in the ground, air pockets, and shapes that may be objects or patterns that may be old tracks, fences or foundations of old structures. Or, long-buried tombstones, wooden coffins or crucifixes.
At its September 27 meeting, the Hope Select Board gave its approval to Gindel and his cemetery committee to consider bringing in a radar team to look under the ground among the dozens of broken and undamaged headstones at Morey Hill. . The rock-walled rural cemetery is set amid rolling, maple-speckled hills of blueberry moorland just off Morey Hill Road. It has been in use since around 1800 and is the older of Hope’s two cemeteries.
“I wanted to do this from the start,” said Gindel, who took over in 2019. She had had an interest in Morey Hill for many years because many of her and her husband’s ancestors are buried in the cemetery. It was his investigation of his own genealogy that began in the 1990s that sparked his interest in Money Hill and his long-forgotten deceased.
But she warned that until a radar team thoroughly investigates and interprets the data collected, there is “no guarantee they will be able to find anything”.
That wasn’t the case recently at Gardiner, where a radar team from Topographix in Hudson, NH, played a key role in resurrecting the long moribund St. Ann’s Cemetery, according to the company’s website and News. of the Maine Old Cemetery Association.
Gindel would very much like to see the same thing happen in Hope; it would be a far cry from his first sight of Morey Hill decades ago.
Her first visit remains engraved in her memory – particularly contrasted with the way she and her team knew how to take care of the soils and stones.
“When I arrived, it looked like an overgrown hay field, with trees growing everywhere. It was a very, very sad place. But I lived in Warren, so I had no control.
She knew that there were many more people buried there than suggested by the number of existing headstones and markers.
In the years that followed, the city undertook a major job of cleaning up the cemetery, removing trees and brush and replacing some downed headstones. And at some point, the Maine Old Cemetery Association came to register the old headstones, according to Gindel.
In 2006 Gindel moved to Hope and when in 2019 the town sought a new sexton to take over the upkeep and record keeping of its two cemeteries, Gindel, who by then had developed an intense interest in Morey Hill, got the job.
“I love the story but I didn’t realize what I was doing when I took over,” the 51-year-old estate agent said.
When she began digging through the earth with metal spikes to find burial sites, she found many, possibly as many as two dozen. She marked each with a shiny white stake in the ground.
It was then that she learned to her dismay that the last burial, in 2013, seemed at best to collide with several ancient sites — and at worst, in the same place.
That’s when she recommended and the city put into effect the moratorium on new burials that has been in place ever since, she said.
Recently, a couple who bought a piece of land some time ago decided to erect tombstones. When the woman and Gindel met at the cemetery, the woman wasn’t absolutely sure where the plot was, although she had a vague idea, according to the sexton. When Gindel searched the city records, she found documents for the sale of the plot, but she did not identify its precise location in the cemetery. Where the woman believed the plot to be was very close to where Gindel located long unmarked sites – possibly originally only marked with a wooden cross which has long since rotten.
After locating his first site a few years ago, Gindel continued to search and uncover more, often locating small remains of headstones or footstones, or following rows of existing headstones to the where the row seems to have ended for no particular reason. , or hitting something hard as she sent punches into the ground. Not that there are skeletal remains; none from so long ago are likely to remain, she said.
Recently, after mowing and felling a clump of brush in a corner of the cemetery shaded by branches from the neighboring field, half a dozen new sites were identified. They include that of a child named George. He died of unknown causes on January 13, 1850, aged four months and 13 days – the son of Sarah and Sylvanus Bowley. Gindel believes the entire family is buried in a row of mostly still unmarked but eventually uncovered burial sites that today sprout from gleaming white piles.
“It’s a big headache,” Gindel said. “Sometimes I work days and days here, and I can’t find anything. Then all of a sudden…”
Not that that’s exactly what she was hired to do. What she and her committee and occasional volunteers are engaged in investigating and identifying graves, she said, “goes well beyond what the job entails.”
That doesn’t slow her down in the least. In addition to probing the earth, she finds and resets tombstones and sometimes just a base that might be hidden two feet deep; fixes what vandals break, mows and clears brush, and places new small polished black stones with identifying information when a long-lost grave site is identified. In addition, she keeps meticulous records.
To accomplish his work of finding lost burial sites, Gindel scours cemetery websites, uses the extensive genealogical records of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormons, examines city records, and researches old photographs that may show tombstones that have disappeared since the photo was taken.
She’s compiled a binder about three inches thick with records from every known site in the cemetery, and she’s still looking for more clues, more clues, more documents.
“If anyone has old photos of the cemetery, I would love to have them,” she said, adding even though they were just random photos and not of a grave or one tombstone in particular. Each of these images could be a valuable clue, she said.
In one case, an old photo helped solve a mystery, that of a missing tombstone from what appeared to have been a matching set. It was a father and son, Samuel and John Bartlett, buried side by side in the 1800s. A headstone appeared to have been broken at the base and, unlike others that had fallen, this one was missing.
But one day a researching family member showed Gindel a photo and it clearly showed that just a few decades ago this matching large black slate headstone was firmly in place. Where he went remains a mystery. In the meantime, the family has had a duplicate made and plans to install it this month.
Gindel admits what she’s been spending a lot of time doing and worrying about these days has been a bit of a surprise in the larger scheme of things.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought of digging in cemeteries,” she said.
She quickly added that what she and her team do is very important. “Someone has to care before what’s salvageable is gone.”
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