On Thursday, May 12, 2016, the Hatfield Historical Society held their annual meeting at the Hatfield American Legion on Elm Street in Hatfield. The guest speaker for this meeting was Jonathan Appell, a gravestone conservator and a Trustee of the Association of Gravestones Studies. Jonathan gave members and guests an excellent presentation and a conservation update of “The Hill” cemetery gravestones. He also provided an extensive walking tour of our historic Hill cemetery.
During the walking tour, the group learned many interesting facts about gravestones and cemeteries. For example, the Hill is not officially a ”cemetery” -- it is a graveyard, and Jonathan explained the difference. A cemetery is a plot of land established by the town or city that is dedicated for burials. Families and individuals can preselect lots or family lots for future use. A graveyard, however, is land in which burials took place, but no pre-lot planning occurred. We can see how that occurred in the Hill graveyard where burials and makers of very different periods are intermixed.
Jonathan also showed examples of his restoration work in cemeteries across the country. He explained how he goes about the work to repair the stones and the professional conservation standards he follows. It was interesting to hear that not all grave markers are made from stone. He showed examples of old wooden markers, in the western part of the country, that are still standing and readable after close to 100 years. Another interesting gravestone material he talked about was soapstone. Yes, soapstone! Jonathan said soapstone is actually a very durable material for a grave marker since it is impervious to acids or other environmental situations, like snow, heat, or cold. On the negative side, however, it is soft and can be easily scratched.
Jonathan also showed us examples of marble “sugar” -- which is what it’s called when marble deteriorates due to weather conditions like snow, acid rain, and wind. Over time, the surface of the marble can turn into a fine white dust that resembles sugar. This condition tends to occur in the colder and wetter parts of the country (like New England) and not in the dry southern states.
The audience had many questions for Jonathan after his presentation, which he graciously answered. The Hatfield Historical Society extends their gratitude to Jonathan Appell for his quality restoration work in our oldest cemetery (OK, graveyard) and for his excellent walking tour and presentation.
Cher Nicholas is also a former member of the Hatfield Cemetery Commission, and one of the several volunteers who has taken on mapping Hatfield cemeteries (she’s mapped the Bradstreet and the West Brook cemeteries). She has also just finished her PhD in Engineering at UMass Amherst, so we hope Dr. Nicholas will again find time to indulge her love of cemeteries and perhaps integrate her photos with her cemetery maps!