Will and Lisa Cornell in Grove Street Cemetery

Precious Stones

The face of George E. Sherman’s gravestone lies in the grass in one large piece and several smaller ones. Sherman died in 1866 at the age of 56, and though his brownstone grave marker lived much longer than he, what’s left of it is now flaking off in bits that are returning to the sand from which they came.

It’s Lisa Cornell’s job to stop it. Her company, Beyond the Gravestone, is known throughout New England as a go-to for gravestone repair. She and her husband, Will, spend spring, summer and fall traveling from one cemetery to another to clean, repair and restore old stones, and New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery is one of their regular stops. Cornell calls it “the most historical cemetery we have here in Connecticut.”

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The cemetery’s board gives Cornell a budget each year and asks her to survey and prioritize the damaged stones, focusing on the especially tricky brownstone markers. She chooses “the worst we can save.” Cemetery caretaker Seeley Jennings, she says, “tends to want to go for the people that are notable. I tend to go for the stone that is just gorgeous and shouldn’t be lost… We meet in the middle.” Sherman’s stone is one of several she plans to repair and restore this season at Grove Street. Its face had fallen off and was leaning against what remains of the stone when Cornell came upon it, but it’s not too late, she says, to save it.

Brownstone markers pose a particular challenge because the stone is formed in sedimentary layers, which Cornell likens to a deck of cards. The stone was quarried such that the layers run vertically, making the carved faces of the gravestones vulnerable to breaking off—like a card separating from the rest of the deck. The back of Sherman’s marker is intact and bears the name of Fred A. Sherman, a child who died just one month after his first birthday. It’s unusual, Cornell says, to see writing on both sides. She knocks on the back of the marker, and it makes a hollow sound. The stone, which draws moisture up from the earth as well as through the cracks and carved marks on its surface, is deteriorating from the inside out. A former nurse, Lisa likens the problem to a bedsore: “You don’t know you have it until it hits the surface, and all the death is underneath… By the time you see the crack, you can’t even believe what’s happening inside.”

Normally, Cornell’s crew prepares a stone before she and her daughter, Emily Dudzic, come in to do the detail work, but today she and Will are starting the Sherman stone by cleaning it with an anti-microbial/anti-fungal solution. Then they’ll pick off all the friable material and coat the stone in a consolidator, which “saturates the stone and adds silicate back in to the stone to make hard again,” Cornell explains—a four-day, four-step process. Later, she’ll use small pins to reinstall the face, securing it with stone-grade epoxy. A company in Pennsylvania will match the color of the stone’s mortar, and Cornell will fill in what’s missing. This particular job will take several weeks and cost about $2,000.

Some cemeteries want Cornell to carve the details back into each stone, while others want to leave them alone, showing their imperfections, what she calls their “journey.” “This is definitely a ‘journey’ place,” she says of Grove Street. Either way, her aim is to do the best and least invasive repair—for now. “These are outdoor museums… I don’t want to go in with my ego,” she says, adding that because technology is bound to improve the process, it’s important not to make repairs that can’t be undone. “I don’t want to do anything that isn’t reversible until they come up with a great way to do it.”

The Cornells offer classes for volunteers on how to handle what she calls the “leans and cleans” so cemeteries can save their money for more complex jobs. Cornell herself learned how to clean and restore gravestones by taking a few classes, “apprenticing” with stone masons and other tradespeople and following the latest research published by the Association for Gravestone Studies. “The ‘degree’ for cemetery stones has to come from hitting the ground running,” she says, “and you have to be smart enough to ask all the questions…”

No one grows up planning to be a gravestone restorer, but Cornell says it’s the perfect profession for her. “Everything I’ve ever loved all came into one job,” she says, citing a “passion” for tombstone carvings that dates back to childhood; a love of gardening, puzzles and sculpting; and her former career as a nurse. She wasn’t surprised when she learned there were undertakers among her ancestors. Will, who serves as a firefighter in Storrs, where they live, lends his skills as a mechanic to many jobs. In addition to gravestone repair, the couple is often contracted to clean statues and monuments.

At Grove Street, Beyond the Gravestone has already restored two tall obelisks, a sarcophagus, two large brownstone tablets and the table stone of Thomas Alling, Esquire, who died on September 11, 1779, at the age of 61. The stone had cracked in the middle and collapsed. Cornell’s crew dug the six legs of the table out by hand—no small task, as they were as much as four feet underground—and replaced them with a solid table of bricks appropriate to the period before mortaring the stone back together.

On a spring day, the carved letters of Alling’s lengthy epitaph were filled with pollen, bright and readable, as if, like the stone into which they were carved, they’d received a new lease on life.

Beyond the Gravestone
(860) 234-7096 | beyondthegravestone@gmail.com

Grove Street Cemetery
227 Grove St, New Haven (map)
Daily 9am-4pm; tours some Saturdays at 10am
(203) 787-1443

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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