Friday, November 02, 2007

Historical cemeteries buried by neglect | Rhode Island news | Rhode Island news | | The Providence Journal

There’s one ritual that can be performed in cemeteries without drawing Wheeler’s disapproval. It involves a mirror, and it’s performed not at midnight but in the bright of day.

If a mirror is used to direct sunshine directly onto a gravestone, Wheeler said, lettering that was once indistinct becomes more readable. That’s when to take a photo or copy the inscription.

For information on how you can help, plus safety advice for cleaning a historical cemetery, visit the commission’s Web site at For more on Rhode Island genealogy and cemeteries, visit

You can help

Do you want to join the historical cemetery cleanup brigade? Here are just some of the 3,500 historical cemeteries in need of attention:

•The Wightman-Sweet Cemetery, number 32, across from Carpenter Jenks Funeral Home, East Greenwich Avenue, West Warwick.

•Burial ground of the Beriah Brown family, number 96, behind Gregg’s Restaurant, Scrabbletown Road, North Kingstown.

• North Burial Ground, off North Main Street, Warren.

•St. James Cemetery, north of Logee Street, Woonsocket.

•Thomas Cornell Cemetery, number 36, behind the Valley Inn Restaurant, West Main Road, Portsmouth

Historical cemeteries buried by neglect | Rhode Island news | Rhode Island news | | The Providence Journal

Rhode Island’s historical cemeteries are in danger of vanishing.

Evelyn Wheeler doesn’t know why, but something coming from those cemeteries is speaking to her. Something compelling.

It could be the weeds and poison ivy. Or maybe it’s that when cemeteries are forgotten, a part of history is lost.

Many of Rhode Island’s historical cemeteries are overgrown, disintegrating and often a gathering spot for evil spirits, or at least underage drinkers.

Wheeler, who with her husband, Frank, volunteered in national parks for 20 years after he retired the first time in 1983, lives in Narragansett and wondered who was in charge of taking care of the historical cemeteries.

It turned out to be her.

She started calling around last year to see about getting attention for a cemetery she’d noticed. The historical cemeteries, she found, have no clear owner. They had no one to care for them. The closest thing to a government agency looking after them was the Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries, and it was nearly dead itself.

She undertook her own cemetery cleanup, then took steps to get the commission revived and was elected its chairman. In April, the commission organized 150 volunteers to clean 53 cemeteries in 29 towns.On Saturday, she is hoping more volunteers will join the brigade of souls looking after the souls who walked the ground before them.

Rhode Island has at least 3,500 historical cemeteries. They are listed and numbered, and the number is posted on a metal sign in each cemetery. Volunteers are trying to document each one, pinpoint its location with a global positioning device, photograph the stones, transcribe what is written there and what is known about the graves, and make everything searchable for genealogy enthusiasts online.


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