Restoring history: Husband and wife team lead the charge to preserve local cemeteries

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BURRILLVILLE – In the 57-square-miles that make up the town of Burrillville, there were once 125 graveyards recorded in the Rhode Island Cemetery Database.

With the exception of the larger ones – like St. Patrick and Pascoag Cemeteries – most were unknown, and in total disrepair when members of the Burrillville Historical and Preservation Society first set out to find and restore them in 2002.

It was years later that husband and wife team Betty and Carlo Mencucci joined the BHPS Cemetery Committee, and began searching for the abandoned graveyards on foot.

“The directions were very old,” Betty said, noting that instructions sent them looking for poles, gates, dirt roads and farmhouses that were no longer there.

But the Mencuccis persevered, and located all but a few that seemed to have been bulldozed.

“We found them all and got a GPS reading for them,” said Betty. “Some of them were duplicates, others were omitted, some have been destroyed and some were never recorded. Carlo and I found at least 5 that were never recorded and made sure they were put on the town maps.”

Most, they say, are small: family plots on private properties with anywhere from 2-20 stones.

But even the larger ones – like Riverside Cemetery on Callahan School Street – had burial stones that were downed, buried or broken.

Soon after, Betty and Carlo joined the Association for Graveyard Studies, an international organization that holds annual conferences, and runs workshops on topics such as grave restoration.

“We wanted to make sure it was done correctly,” Betty said.

Too often, she notes, untrained hobbyists attempt the feat using the wrong materials, and end up ruining the stones.

The couple began their work at a small cemetery at the corner of Howard Avenue and Charles Street, opposite Hauser field, restoring the gravestone of a Civil War soldier named Stephen Hopkins.

“It was broken, and it was disgraceful,” Betty said.

Since then, the Mencuccis have worked their way through graveyards across Burrillville, bringing their professional restoration skills to some 30 different cemeteries.

Betty and Carlo Mencucci dug a hole 30 inch deep to set the stone of Moses Taft in the Moses Taft Cemetery off Whipple Road in Pascoag, known as Cemetery #92.

They’ve developed a process, first setting the stones upright and cleaning them with a special biological cleaner. The couple has learned to divide up the labor, with Betty doing much of the digging, and mixing concrete for the base as needed, and Carlo doing the finer work, like using the right epoxy to reassemble the stone.

They’ve also continued attending classes and workshops to master the volunteer skill, and have begun holding their own workshops on the process.

In 2016, their efforts were recognized by AGS with the Oakley Award in acknowledgement of how their contributions have helped to advance the trade.

“Most people just dabble in it,” Betty noted. “They don’t try to do every cemetery in town.”

Last year, the Mencuccis held a well-attended workshop on cemetery conservation skills in Harrisville in conjunction with Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. The event led individuals with an interest in restoring Swan Point Cemetery in Providence to request their presence there.

On Wednesday, April 10, they’ll hold a session at Gray Coale Reception Hall at 585 Blackstone Boulevard in Providence from 6:30 to 8:15 p.m. Participants will learn about the proper method of conservation and various stone types, as well as different techniques and materials used in the process.

And on Saturday, April 13, from 9 a.m. to noon, the Mencuccis will celebrate Cemetery Awareness/Preservation Day with an event in their hometown, partnering with BRVNHC to host a clean up Riverside Cemetery (#26) – across from the Harrisville Fire Department.

The project involves mostly raking, along with some brush cutting and hauling away of debris. Volunteers are asked to bring a leaf rake and brush loppers, if available, as well as their own water, and dress to work outdoors with boots and work gloves.

Coffee and donuts will be provided by the Burrillville Historical and Preservation Society.

Project leaders will also be conducting short tours, and those curious about the process are invited to stop by to see the work being done. The Mencuccis will demonstrate proper headstone cleaning techniques, and weather permitting, stone setting.

Guests will also get the chance to see the gravestone of one town’s more recently famous deceased: Bathsheba Sherman, the town native blamed for haunting the Perron family home in the movie The Conjuring.

The Bathsheba Sherman gravestone when it was vandalized on September 30, 2016.
Carlo and Betty Mencucci stand behind the Sherman stone after they completed restoration in September of 2017.

The Monday prior, the Mencuccis will appear on The Rhode Show to promote the event.

The statewide preservation day aims to bring awareness to historic and neglected cemeteries, where proponents say, help is always needed.

At the event, there will be information available to learn more about Burrillville’s historical cemeteries, and its Adopt-A-Cemetery program, along with helpful information on how to maintain a graveyard.

“Every town has them,” said Mencucci. “We’ve been trying to set an example.”

The rain date for the event is Sunday, April 14 from 9 a.m to noon.

For more information, contact Betty Mencucci at 401-568-8449 or bmencucci@verizon.net.

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