c5The sun filtered through the leaves on a bright but chilly fall afternoon at Mayflower Cemetery. All was quiet, as is custom when surrounded by such pensive peers, save for the quick scraping of metal on marble.

Bright purple dishwashing gloves flashed against gray, lichen-covered stones as their caretaker scrubbed and scraped tirelessly across the top. Betsy Schlesinger stood and stretched, taking in her handiwork.

Schlesinger has been a member of the Friends of Burial Ground in Plymouth for a number of years. A retired Duxbury teacher who taught for 29 years, she heard about the group through word of mouth and went to one of the meetings. The group was started by June Gillete and Cheryle Caputo, who shared an interest in cleaning up the gravestones in Plymouth. After going through the training process to learn the safest, most effective way to clean the stones, they started sharing their passion with others.

“Once you go through the training, do an actual cleaning with them by your side and document the stone, you are able to start cleaning on your own,” Schlesinger said.

The cleaning process is tedious and exhausting. Using a sponge and a metal scraper, Schlesinger combines water with a biological solution called D2, which is specially formulated to remove environmental pollution, dirt and staining from stone, masonry, metal, vinyl and roofing. It is safe for the stone, the grass and human contact.

“Never use bleach or a power washer,” Schlesinger said. “Those will destroy the stone and eat away at the surface.”

A regular-sized stone could take two to three hours of intense scrubbing and cleaning to take off the stains, dirt and growth. The D2 continues cleaning and whitening the stone for up to two weeks. With help from the sun, the stones can become just about as white as they were when they were first made. The stones can only be cleaned between April and October, because if the stones are still wet during the cold months, they can crack.

Schlesinger has visited her family’s plot at the cemetery for a number of years. When the Boy Scouts plant geraniums by the gravestones each Memorial Day, she walks over to the plot to visit and water the flowers. During each visit, she would walk by a stone that caught her eye. 

"I walked by Nathan Dorr every time I visited," she said. "When I realized there was no family coming to visit, I watered his flower, too." 

About a month ago, Schlesinger decided to start cleaning up the stones on her family’s plot. There were a few stones she was particularly curious about and she thought removing the lichen and dirt from the stones would help her figure out who each person was and her connection to them.

“There is one, for a girl named Clara, that is at the back of the plot,” she said. “It had sunk over time and was buried under pine needles and I was curious to learn more about her.”

Once she was done cleaning her family’s plot, she decided she should clean Nathan Dorr’s stone as well. Compared to the rest of his family, his stone really stood out. It was then that Schlesinger decided to clean up his family’s stones, as well. The Dorr’s are the last stones she will clean this year, as the colder weather will set in soon and the stones need to be completely dry so they do not crack during the winter.

Schlesinger said she enjoys cleaning the stones because each one tells a special story and is indicative of how the person was regarded by his family members. She has been stopped by workmen who have complimented her on her work and she has had inquisitive visitors ask what she is doing. She said she wishes there were more people in town who shared the interest.

“These people deserve to be remembered the right way,” she said. “It’s wonderful to read the kinds of poetry that are the stones describing the person. Each stone has its own story to tell.”