Picture an eerie, centuries-old burying ground. The headstones are cracked and tilted, leaning at dangerous angles toward the grass. Lichen and mold inch up their sides. Names, dates and epitaphs carved into the stone, weathered by wind and rain, slowly fade back into time.
Many people assume graveyards are supposed to look like this — but the truth is, they’re not, explained historian Kurt Kahofer.
The retired Sag Harbor Elementary School teacher was guilty of that mindset, too, until he started working in burying grounds — restoring, cleaning, fixing and straightening headstones — and quickly realized he had it all wrong.
“The people who put those markers in for their loved ones, they did not imagine that, over the period of 150-plus years, they would end up looking like this,” he said. “They put them in as pristine and new, and they expected them to always look like that.”
For 22 Revolutionary War patriots buried between the 1780s and 1840s in the Sag Harbor Old Burying Ground, their headstones look the best they have in decades, largely in thanks to the efforts of Mr. Kahofer and longtime local historian Zach Studenroth — who, together, founded the Burying Ground Preservation Group, which works to protect these delicate and often overlooked historical and sacred sites.
“Prior to the 1880s, there’s no consistent record-keeping except for the headstones,” Mr. Studenroth explained. “These, from our point of view, are vital records. They’re not written records, they’re carved records, but it’s the same thing. That’s one of the primary motivations for wanting to preserve and stabilize the stones themselves, because they are ultimately records — and they happen to be outdoors and extremely vulnerable.”
Earlier this week, after years of planning and nearly a month of work, Mr. Kahofer, Mr. Studenroth and Joel Snodgrass, a materials conservator, finished restoring the nearly two-dozen Revolutionary War monuments in the burying ground, which is home to about 350 grave markers total.
Outside of conservation efforts by the Sag Harbor Old Burying Ground Committee in the 1990s, the site had remained largely untouched for two decades.
“It’s always important to acknowledge those who came before, so we’re not inventing anything here, nor are we the first to get in there and try to make a difference,” Mr. Studenroth said. “The project, it’s a little out there, admittedly, but we’re really into it.”
Situated next to the Old Whalers’ Church, the Sag Harbor Old Burying Ground is one of the oldest cemeteries on the South Fork, though it did start as a burying ground, as its name suggests. The difference lies in the Colonial era’s understanding of death — and its grim finality — which was a bit harsher than the 19th century’s softer interpretation that implied it was more of an eternal rest.
The shift from burying ground to cemetery occurred long after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783. And while the site was, initially, for its local fallen soldiers, the majority of the monuments are for veterans who lived out the rest of their lives in the village, Mr. Studenroth said.
“Some of them survived the war, went on to do other things, lived to a ripe old age and died 40 years later,” he said. “In that sense, the kinds of stones — because there are types of stone that are used for carving — and styles of stone carving evolve over time. So we see big changes in all of that.”
The earliest headstones — comprising about half of the 22 patriot monuments — are made of brownstone, which was the more typical material used in the late 18th century. Gradually, marble came into style and pushed brownstone out, establishing itself as the predominant stone type used throughout the 19th century.
And both require a different kind of care.
“When I first started this endeavor, I thought, ‘Oh, this is very difficult,’” Mr. Kahofer said. “But, actually, when you make the right plan and prioritize the process of restoring the headstones, it turns out that it’s not as difficult as it seems, although it does take a very careful approach.”
In the stone world, marble is famous for its excellent hosting skills — be it lichen, mold, fungi and all sorts of living debris that float through the air and cling to its surface, often turning its pristine white façade to gray.
The team uses an anti-microbial solution and gently scrubs the marble surface, which not only improves the appearance and longevity of the stone, but also makes the inscriptions more legible.
“If you were to walk into the site now and look at the ones that we’ve treated, you would see a very definite difference between the ones that have been cleaned and the ones that haven’t,” Mr. Studenroth said.
The most dramatic intervention involved a hoist that lifted a roughly 500-pound marble headstone to reaffix it to its broken base, which proved to be complicated, as did quieter efforts for the brownstone grave markers. They often came paired with a diminutive footstone with inscribed initials — a tradition that was a sign of the times and gave the team double the work.
Because these are among the first stones in the graveyard, their exposure to the elements is that much more severe, explained Mr. Studenroth. Looking at the stone from the side, it resembles thin phyllo dough layers — one stacked on top of the next, 30 layers deep, each susceptible to water seeping in between.
And when it does, and then freezes and thaws, it pushes the layers apart — over and over again, for now 240 years.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” Mr. Studenroth said. “And, of course, it’s happening on the front where the carving was done, not on the back where you’re not gonna lose the inscription. So that’s why when you walk around and you see the fronts of some of these brownstones, you’re like, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, half of it’s falling off!’ And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about that.”
Short of molding a new headstone and carving an epitaph, the team conserves the eroding stones in the best way they know how: by strategically drilling holes into the hollow cavities and injecting them with liquid grout using a syringe. After drying into a solid, the 10 headstones that needed this treatment are officially reinforced.
“That was very lucky because, oftentimes, you don’t get to these stones in time and they have already fallen apart,” Mr. Studenroth said. “We had quite a few that we were able to stabilize in that way, and you can still read them.”
In total, the restoration effort cost $20,000, jointly funded by the Southampton Colony Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. As the project neared its completion, Mr. Kahofer reflected on its significance — an honoring of the artisans themselves, the men and women buried there, and the families left behind.
“Basically, we all do love the old look of these old burying grounds, but we need to be respectful of the people who put them in, especially if they buried their children,” he said. “They need to look like they were looking when they were first installed. I evolved into that. I didn’t have that initially, but now I do.”
Come September, the burying ground will host public walking tours and Sag Harbor Elementary School visits that supplement the students’ lessons on the Revolutionary War. Across Long Island, at least 40 elementary schools are within walking distance of their own community burying ground, and Mr. Studenroth said he hopes this project sparks similar restorations.
“Orient, for example, their elementary school is right across the street. For Setauket, it’s a three-minute walk down the street,” he said. “We find this to be a very memorable way for students to connect to their local history.”
Last week, when Mr. Kahofer was working at the site, Deanna Lattanzio — a fellow retired Sag Harbor Elementary School teacher and secretary for the Sag Harbor Historical Society — was leading a fourth grade walking tour and stopped at the burying ground. Without hesitation, he jumped into action, launching into an impromptu lesson.
“That felt very satisfying to me. I felt like I was back in the saddle, so to speak,” he said, having retired in 2017. “That kind of outdoor learning is exactly what we want to have happen at Sag Harbor Elementary — not just in-class learning, but outside, in the field, seeing and learning about real things.”
Being about to hear, read, see and touch the history of a place guides its future, Mr. Kahofer said, and working in the burying ground really allowed him to feel that.
“The first time that I dug up a headstone and I removed it, I felt a little odd,” he said. “But after a couple more and resetting and straightening and fixing, I felt really good about it and I thought, ‘Well, you know, if it were my headstone, I’d be like, “Thank you very much.”’”