“Jesus Christ is the firstborn from the dead; glory and kingship be His for ever and ever.” Revelation 1:5
Kelly Grimaldi, Historian, Albany Diocesan Cemeteries
Gravestone Therapy: The Benefits of Volunteerism in the Cemetery
Each year I am amazed to see an increase in the number of people willing to volunteer their time to work in old cemeteries. There seems to be no shortage of folks willing to garb up in grungy clothes, slip on waterproof gloves and scrub away decades of grime and biological growth from aging monuments. Why would anyone spend their free time sitting in a cemetery scrubbing old gravestones? I always ask a new volunteer what prompted them to call me about gravestone restoration projects. The most common response is that they admire the beauty of old cemeteries and want to be part of the preservation process. That is a good and honorable reason and the efforts of volunteers are much appreciated. But what I really love to hear, after a volunteer has spent several hours of their precious time cleaning, is: "This is fun" or "This is really interesting and relaxing."
You see dear reader, cleaning a gravestone is not like cleaning your house or your shed. Making repairs to old gravestones is not like trying to get your vacuum cleaner or lawnmower to work. Those things are chores – a drudgery of necessity and not very interesting, fun or relaxing. But taking a nylon brush and applying a gentle cleaning agent to a gravestone blackened by pollutants and covered in unsightly lichen and moss is not a chore, it is a choice. I've had volunteers tell me they spend their free time here to relax and combat stress. It is rather difficult to be uptight or unhappy standing under a blue sky amongst tall trees, flower gardens and decorative memorials. It is impossible not to reflect on the joy of living when you are gently washing grime away from a gravestone inscription. People tell me their minds wander without effort and a sense of calm prevails. They wonder about the name on the gravestone. They try to imagine what their lives were and make comparisons to life today. They become connected to something peaceful. Stress levels diminish like a little puddle of water in the summer sun. I see smiles instead of pursed lips and furrowed brows. I see peace.
It is not uncommon to hear a volunteer talk out loud to the dead as though the deceased were there with them in spirit watching good work unfold. Soon the gravestone is not just a gravestone – it is a memorial to a stranger who, with each circular motion of a scrub brush, becomes a person you call by name. A kind of a bond has formed. I love to work side by side with volunteers and I also appreciate it when they prefer I set them up, give them instruction and a project and leave them to their task. The finished product is indeed satisfying though the process of getting there is the real joy. I have never seen a volunteer leave in a bad mood. Burial grounds seem to possess therapeutic properties. So the next time you are feeling restless, bored or stressed, take time to volunteer in a cemetery. You can always call me at 463-0134! I've got the brushes, non-toxic cleaners and lots of water sprayers. Gravestone therapy is free and I guarantee it works!
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Artwork by Joe Mele.
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