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Mencuccis bring love to graves

October 22, 2011

BURRILLVILLE — The fate of Charles Hopkins’ headstone is a perfect example of how far things had gone at Pascoag’s Historical Cemetery No. 12.
Carlo Mencucci and his wife, Betty, knew Hopkins was supposed to be buried next to his father, Augustus Hopkins, a 19th century mill boss whose grave was marked by a prominent monument. But there was nothing beside the gravestone of the family patriarch save for a mossy depression in the ground.
They suspected the missing Hopkins marker was somewhere else in the burial site, hidden beneath an ever-growing layer of mulchy topsoil fed by generations’ worth of unchecked leaf-fall and general neglect.
Using a thin steel rod for a probe, they began poking about the cemetery, eventually locating the shattered pieces of Charles Hopkins’ marble marker pancaked beneath a thick layer of earth about 20 yards from where his ancestors had placed it, generations ago.
“Sometimes we have to do a lot of detective work,” says Betty Mencucci. “We’re at the point now where we think we’ve accounted for everyone who was buried here.”
The president of the Burrillville Historical Society, Mencucci and her husband are close to finishing their first restoration of one of the town’s myriad historical cemeteries, a goal the society established several years ago.
Since spring, the Mencuccis and a couple of fellow society members have spent a good deal of their free time here trying to undo the damage that time — and vandals — have done to the cemetery.
Historical Cemetery No. 12 is also known as the Hopkins Potter Marsh cemetery, after the surnames of the wealthiest industrialists of the mill era. The cemetery holds about 70 graves, including those of the textile titans, their relatives and others who worshipped at the now-defunct Laurel Hill Methodist Church, which used to be a few blocks away.
Located at the corner of Howard Avenue and Charles Street, the cemetery is about the size of a house lot and limned by wrought-iron gate, some of it as rusty as it is ornate. The headstones, crudely but lovingly engraved with the names of the deceased, are made in the style and materials of another time — plain slabs of limestone, white marble and dusky gray granite.
When the Mencuccis first began working at the cemetery this spring, it looked like a tornado had wiped the place out. Many of the stones were tilted, toppled, or shattered, while others, like that of Charles Hopkins, seemed to have vanished. Still others were perpendicular enough, but the incessant mulching of layer upon layer of seasonal leaf-fall was beginning to bury them in an ever-thickening layer of loam.
“It was a mess,” says Carlo.
Things have come a long way since then, says Carlo, motioning to an area where the stones have all been cleaned, repaired and repositioned.
“All of the stones you see in this section that are vertical, they were either horizontal or buried when we first started working here,” he says.
A retired teacher who raises honeybees on her farm in Glendale, Betty Mencucci says the restoration project has been as much a labor of love as a learning experience. They’ve attended a number of workshops on restoring cemetery markers, a practice, it turns out, that’s rather specialized.
This summer, they attended a field seminar in Maine sponsored by the Association of Gravestone Studies. Under the tutelage of experts, they spent two days in a cemetery for some hands-on training in repairing headstones.
Now they use a special mortar to fill headstone cracks made from limestone quarried in St. Astier, France.
For reattaching shattered shards of headstone marble, they use a type of rock-hard, frost-tolerant epoxy that’s made by just one company in Germany.
Their choice for cleaning moss, algae and lichens from timeworn monuments is an organic solvent developed by a professional headstone conservator.
Even the heavy-duty pry-bar they use to jostle headstones into place – some of them weigh hundreds of pounds – had to be mail-ordered from out of state because they couldn’t find what they needed in any hardware or chain store in the region.
Henry Duquette of Harrisville, a member of the Rhode Island Cemetery Commission and fellow historical society members Don and Margaret Waterman have also pitched in some of the elbow grease needed to bring the cemetery back from the brink, the Mencuccis said.
But nearly all of the money they receive for materials and tools comes from charitable donations, much of it from Ocean State Power. The company, which runs a co-generation plant near the Uxbridge line, donated $1,500 to the cause recently.
The Mencuccis say there are perhaps 130 historical cemeteries in Burrillville —more than many towns in the state, but a typical figure for New England. Some are similar in character to the Hopkins Potter Marsh plot, but others that are so crude and primitive one might not even notice them on a casual pass through the woods.
Dating back to the town’s earliest settlements in the 1600s, these burial grounds can consist of just a handful of fieldstones, barely poking through the mulch of the surrounding pines their ancestors often favored as cemetery plots, according to the Mencuccis.
“Some of them are a half-mile in the woods,” says Betty. “Some are behind people’s houses.”
In some cases, these sites are so old they’ve become divorced from the chain of history. No one knows who’s buried in them, making it even more unlikely the resources can be mustered to maintain them.
Still, the Mencuccis are striving the preserve — if not create — records that such places exist. Using whatever historical documents they can find, they’ve been hunting for some of the town’s most forgotten cemeteries and recording their precise locations with a GPS device. The information will become part of the historical society’s permanent records.
Even if the identities of those buried in such sites are never determined, the information can be used to protect the cemeteries from future development and accord the dead the respect they deserve, the Mencuccis say.
For more visible historical cemeteries like the Hopkins Potter Marsh site, the more immediate threat to posterity may be vandalism.
But the Mencuccis say the best insurance money can buy may be the investment in preservation.
“It shows it’s cared for,” says Carlo. “It shows someone’s watching.”

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