Determination and care are helping to make a Pickaway County cemetery whole again.
A dedicated preservationist, Mark Smith of Gravestone Transformations, started the cemetery conservation and preservation project at Pontius United Methodist Church Cemetery earlier this year, but doesn’t expect to finish it before next winter.
The work, which includes probing the hallowed ground for hidden markers, repairing broken headstones and resetting fallen monuments, not only outweighs the manpower but invariably leads to new discoveries that further add to his to-do list.
Much of the potential work is clearly visible. The headstones, primarily made of marble, scattered throughout Pontius UMC Cemetery were what initially drew Smith to the restoration work. A few inches below the undulating ground, however, lie more clues to the past.
“I may not be able to find all of the gravestones for every burial at Pontius. Quite a number of pieces are completely missing. However, those that I can locate, repair, reset and clean will help tell the history of our area, one stone at a time,” said Smith.
Earlier this year, Smith set out to preserve the estimated 130 headstones that are both visible and hidden at Pontius United Methodist Church Cemetery.
“Some of the first settlers to Washington Township are buried in this cemetery. They raised their families here and brought business and growth to the area. To this day, some of their descendants still live in this township and in this county.”
The cemetery is filled with an array of stones slotted into the lawn. Some in need of leveling and others in need of repair.
“When these interred residents passed, they were honored with a funeral and a headstone. There isn’t a way to make their stones new again, but I am making every effort to show their gravestones the same respect they were honored with at the time they passed. I feel they deserve nothing less,” Smith said. “Our history is told within each cemetery and that’s important to preserve. Unfortunately, the cemetery conservation season is limited to the warm months, so time is always of the essence to maintain these cemeteries each year. Our history is too important to get lost.”
Ice is only one enemy to the historical architectures found in a graveyard.
”Gravestones can get buried in the dirt for a number of reasons. One reason, of course, is the ground naturally shifting underneath the weight of the monument. Stones can get broken in the same manner. The ground shifting can cause headstones to lean. Depending on how the stone is mounted, it can cause it to fall over or break,” Smith explained.
During his quest to preserve the cemetery, Smith is using all available resources on the interments there. He’s researching burial records, birth and marriage records, historical documents and maps. Mark uses these combined tools to help fill in the gaps of those buried at Pontius Cemetery.
When asked about funding for the cemetery preservation project, Smith said, “Funding for conservation and preservation projects for church cemeteries when they’re not part of the National Register of Historic Places has to come from outside sources. As of right now, there isn’t funding to preserve this cemetery. It’s a project I’m taking on with the blessing of the church board. If funding was available, it would go toward the materials needed to fully preserve the cemetery. Materials such as sand, gravel and epoxy.”
The Pontius United Methodist Church Cemetery preservation project will take Smith more than a year to achieve. Even if all of the gravestones are not found, preserving as many as possible and recording that information will give a visually historic record for Washington Township and Pickaway County. It will also help future generations learn about their ancestors.
“Preservation efforts are going well, but slow,” Mark Smith said when asked when the project would be completed. “Every time I dig around a stone, I find new things. I find more that needs done every day.”