Grave devotion

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Mike, who prefers not to have his last name used in this story, repairs an old headstone at Mitchell’s Graveyard in Mexico. “It makes me smile when it’s all done. That’s why I do it.” 

Retiree drives around repairing broken gravestones on his own. But it’s not that simple, some town officials say.

Mike has been repairing old headstones for who knows how long. Ask and he can’t tell you.

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This year he’s fixed 111 and counting, all for free. The 64-year-old retiree doesn’t do it for the attention or accolades; in fact, he insisted on not having his last name in this story.

He drives around western Maine in a maroon pickup truck with maps and a printout of state cemetery laws — no removing bodies, no driving ATVs over graves — looking for stones that are leaning, tipped, broken and disheveled.

Mike keeps dozens of clamps, wood, granite epoxy, bug spray and a power drill with a stiff nylon brush in his cab, at the ready.

The work is mostly solitary — his wife joins him occasionally — and it fits his brusque personality. Don’t accuse him of being sentimental, he warns, even when he is for a minute.

“That’s my favorite stone, for some reason,” he said, standing in a Mexico cemetery and pointing to one that belongs to 5-year-old Martha. She died in 1852. “One day, this family stood here and somebody cried. And at one time, somebody did care about this little piece of land.”

He spent three weeks this summer fixing Martha’s stone and others around her. That work’s done. Mike’s got eyes on another site in Andover, 20 minutes away, at the dead-end of a precarious dirt road.

The grounds there are covered in trimmed plush moss, the rock wall around it is neat and square, and inside are a dozen stones, some tipped, some broken, at least one wedged in the ground to hold up another one that’s ready to tumble over.

He stands there surveying the scene and he’s both wistful and angry.

It’s the graveyard equivalent of the one that got away.

The towns of Rumford, Mexico and Peru have all green-lighted his roving repair work. Andover hasn’t been an easy yes. 

“There’s rules and regulations,” said Andover Town Clerk Melinda Averill. “You don’t just go into a cemetery and mess around, whether it’s a good deed or not.” 

HEAVY LIFTING

When pressed, Mike can loosely trace his interest in headstones to childhood. As a boy growing up in Vermont, if he passed through a field and saw a sagging stone, he’d straighten it. 

“I’ve got PGNSF or whatever.” He means OCD. “I don’t like things crooked, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just an old man looking for something to do.”

Mike retired several years ago. He served in the Army Special Forces, then worked in construction, then as a merchant marine for dredging companies. His wife is from Maine, which landed them here.

Their little white dog, Jackie, is a constant companion on his road trips. He mutters as she wanders off, again: “I never minded and she’s never going to.”

Mike only enters town-owned cemeteries. Private ones are often better maintained, in his experience. Most leads come from maps, American Legion Post 24 in Rumford, loggers, ATV riders, people who mow grass on the side of the road and by keeping alert as he drives.

“When I’m on a main road, everyone wants to stop, see what I’m doing and tell me a ghost story,” he said. “I listen to them, take a break.”

Does he believe in ghosts?

“Nooooo.”

He’s dismissive. Then thinks about it.

“I don’t know what I believe, but nobody’s ever bothered me,” Mike says.

He came out to Martha’s site, named Mitchell’s Graveyard, after paving work brought Back Kingdom Road to within 100 feet of it. He commissioned a professional sign for the cemetery in the woods and added wind chimes.

“Some of the ones I really like, I go extra for,” Mike said.

Over three weeks, he addressed each of the 20 stones there, straightening and resetting some in new cement bases and gluing others. He’s devised a massive wooden easel to repair broken stones, first nestling in the bottom half, which gets a good scrub with the nylon brush. After laying out a strip of thick epoxy, he hefts the top half, settles it in with the bottom and clamps up the works. It’ll stay in the easel two days to set.

In another case, Mike opted to leave a large stone, which had split at a severe angle, on the ground and built a box around it, ringing the stone in pretty crushed rock.

He could have attempted lifting and gluing if he had a second pair of hands, but he doesn’t.

“Nobody helps, because you know what?” Mike said. “They probably don’t really give a rat’s ass.”

GRAVE INTERPRETATION

Michael Mills was decidedly surprised when someone asked to start repairing headstones around Rumford for free.

“This day and age, you kind of look at a person twice when they ask you that,” said Mills, superintendent of public works and the parks department, laughing.

Rumford keeps 11 town cemeteries mowed, but doesn’t always have time to get to dilapidated stones.

“It’s been a big help to us,” Mills said. “We’ve been out ourselves this summer — not to the extent that he does it. He uses a lot of his own product. I offered him product that we had to try, so it’s been a pretty good relationship the whole way around. He’s done an excellent job.”

Mike received a similar reception in Mexico when he asked if they minded his repairing Mitchell’s Graveyard.

“We said, ‘No, go ahead,'” said Town Manager Jack Gaudet. “We support him, and then he needed some rocks moved and we sent a crew up there to help him do that.”

Same in Peru, with its 20 cemeteries and home to the oldest stone Mike’s found: a soldier whose headstone is marked “War of 1776.” “So far, we’re very happy and it’s definitely a very nice deed,” said Stephanie Woods, secretary to the selectmen in Peru.

But in Andover, it’s been no go.

After an initial yes at the Town Office last month, Mike was told the next morning to put the brakes on before repairing anything in the cemetery at the end of Farmers Hill Road. Officials told him he would need to write down the names on the stones he intended to touch and either he or the town would first have to track down ancestors for permission.

“I don’t (even) jump through hoops for my wife,” said Mike. “This (grave) here, ‘Susan, wife of Peter Durant,’ died in 1899. You’ve got to cut me some slack. How am I going to find those people?”

Maine Cemetery Law says anyone can repair a headstone if they first have the OK of an ancestor or if a municipality approves. Additional permission is needed for anything on private land.

(The law also says municipalities “shall keep” veterans’ headstones “in good condition and repair from May 1st to Sept. 30th of each year,” including keeping them upright if they were originally upright.)

Donna Libby, chairwoman of Andover’s Cemetery Committee, said the cemetery at the end of Farmers Hill Road is town-owned, but she interprets the plots inside as private property; someone at some time bought the plots so they could be buried there, and someone somewhere holds the deed.

Cemeteries are touchy things, she said. The town started her committee to draft an ordinance around maintenance, likely to be voted on at town meeting next spring.

“People (were) putting all sorts of adornments on there,” Libby said. “The caretakers of the cemetery were having problems mowing because people got flowers and people get upset if you remove their flowers, even if they’re dead. You’d be surprised, some people get really upset about touching their grave or their ancestors’ graves or their parents’ graves.”

‘FIX ONE FREAKIN’ STONE’

For now, Mike and Andover are at a stalemate, which, like seemingly many things, irritates Mike.

“I’d like to see Andover cough up that hairball they seem to have,” he said.

Libby said the committee hasn’t been down to look at the condition of the stones at what she believes might officially be known as Lovejoy Cemetery. (There’s no sign.) The one time she tried to get down there, the road appeared nearly washed out after a storm.

“That’s a veteran — they’ve got stones holding up the back of that one. The state says they can’t be like that,” said Mike, walking the cemetery earlier this month. “That stone’s bent over. That’s not five years (of damage), that’s 20 years. That hasn’t been broke this weekend. Every month, fix one freakin’ stone. That goes for everybody, not just Andover.”

A few headstones show old dribbles of glue and weathered repairs like rusty metal strapping. Mike guesses family members did that years ago.

“If they ever let me in, I’ll buy (the cemetery) a sign,” he said.

Mike’s never added up how much money he’s spent on his unusual hobby, nor does he keep track of the time. In a few weeks, he plans to leave a coin on all the graves he’s repaired this year, a sign that someone’s visited. He’ll also place hundreds of flags for Veterans Day.

In the meantime, there’s plenty to do in Rumford, Mexico and Peru before the snow flies.

There is, he insists, no real underlying reason for putting all the miles on his truck, enduring the bugs, hauling bags of cement into the woods and coming home covered in dirt.

“It makes me smile, that’s all it is,” said Mike. “I sit by myself, nobody bothers me, it just makes me smile. It makes me feel good, and a smile is hard to come by today. If you find something that makes you smile, dear, spend a little more time doing it.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com

More coverage: Fragile headstones make repairs risky

“I’ll repair 100 stones this year,” said Mike earlier this month. Later that day, he hit 107.

Mike and his dog, Jackie, find many of the broken headstones that he fixes when the two drive around western Maine in Mike’s pickup truck. 

“It makes me smile when it’s all done. That’s why I do it,” said Mike about why he repairs headstones on his own time and on his own dime. 

Mike would like to repair the old broken headstones in the cemetery on the Farmers Hill Road in Andover. Town officials have told him no, not unless he can get permission from the descendants of the deceased. 

Broken headstones in the cemetery on the Farmers Hill Road in Andover are what Mike would like to repair. 

Mike has a soft spot for Martha’s grave at Mitchell’s Graveyard in Mexico. Mike repaired the 5-year-old’s headstone. “That’s my favorite stone.”

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