AUBURN — The monuments stand tall. The gravestones are white as snow.

The three-year effort to return dignity to Briggs Cemetery by righting the fallen spires and removing years of accumulated grime from headstones is finished.

The work, started by Daniel Poulin of Auburn as an Eagle Scout project, turned into a work of devotion that Poulin says has tied him to the cemetery forever.

More than a dozen people helped Poulin over the years, including his father and his Scoutmaster Ronald Poulin, his grandparents Ray and Edith Lemieux, fellow Scouts and Robert Murphy and his family.

The work started in 2007, with the real efforts made in good weather. Volunteers had to dig under the stones to tilt them off their foundations, and then pack fresh fill under the stones to set them straight. Spires that had fallen off platforms were lifted back in place, and two large trees were removed, courtesy of Auburn Public Works.

The Murphy family business — R.E. Murphy & Son Monuments — threw its full support behind the effort, providing cleaning solution, power washers and the expertise to clean the stones.

“The real investment here was the labor,” Poulin, said, supplied by Murphy and other volunteers.

They righted and cleaned between 80 and 100 stones, and the difference is visible along the edge of the Turner Street cemetery.

Robert Murphy, who had worked with Poulin years before to erect the Veterans Monument at Raymond Park in New Auburn, died when the Briggs project was half-finished. Before he died, he told his family he wanted them to see the work through, to make sure Poulin got what he needed to finish the clean-up. They did, turning out for every work day and celebrating together when the final stone was cleaned last September.

On that final work day, Robert’s son, David Murphy, said the family wanted “to be there in tribute to my dad.” It was, Poulin said, also a tribute to the history of the cemetery and the families buried there.

Briggs Cemetery is one of Auburn’s original cemeteries, with about 250 graves there, some dating back to the 1700s and many to the 1800s. Two Revolutionary War soldiers, Samuel Berry and Williams Briggs, are buried there and the Perkins family plot bears witness to an epidemic of the early 19th century. Four children of Enoch and Susannah Perkins died within 19 days of each other in the summer of 1804.

Ira Beal originally from Minot and who fought in the War of 1812 is buried there, alongside his family, including four children, two of whom died in infancy.

Another 1812 vet, Jeremiah Merrill, also of Minot is there. He lived to be 83 years old, and is buried next to his wife, Nancy.

The families buried there were some of Auburn’s earliest settlers whose names remain familiar: Bean, Perry, Perkins, Lovejoy, Faunce, Bradbury, Morrell, Whitman, Stinson, Merrill, Wood, Randall.

Joseph Chamberlain, who died in 1865 at age 80, has inscribed on his stone: “My flesh shall slumber in the ground; Till the last trumpet’s joyful sound. Then burst the chains with sweet surprise; And in my saviour’s image rise.”

The stone of Williams Briggs, who fought in the Revolutionary War, is inscribed: “Remember me as you pass by, As you are now so once was I. As I am now so you must be, prepare to die and come with me.” He was buried there in 1820, age 77.

Briggs, a Massachusetts native who moved with his wife and five sons to East Auburn in 1797, operated one of the city’s first grist mills. The couple’s youngest son, Daniel, was to become the first teacher in East Auburn.

These details are now known because Poulin and his family not only cleaned the cemetery, they researched the families buried there, charting the names and years of deaths, noting where the cemetery’s fifteen monuments are located. It’s the only documentation that provides such clear detail for this plot.

The cemetery, established on the former Nathan Briggs farm in 1824, is interesting in that there are no field stones marking graves. All burials — except in more times — have inscribed headstones. All the stones face eastward and some are as much as six feet tall, weighing more than 1,000 pounds.

Poulin got the idea to clean the cemetery from his grandmother, when she made an informal suggestion it would be a good Eagle Scout project to spruce it up. They were passing the cemetery by car when she made the suggestion, and it just took a glance for Poulin to agree.

He started with basic yard work, bagging leaves and cutting brush, before really pushing to clean the stones. The work was done by Poulin and other volunteers in spurts, during the summer and fall months, with many delays because rain softened the ground at the cemetery, and Poulin suffered an arm injury that slowed him down in 2008, but once the work had started he said he persisted because he needed to finish his Eagle Scout project. After receiving his Eagle Scout rank, though, his devotion to the cemetery did not end.

When Poulin, studying biology as a freshman at the University of Maine at Farmington, returned home for Christmas break, he learned that there was a veteran’s grave that did not have an American flag set in honor.

Although not an original part of his Eagle Scout project, Poulin decided somewhere along the way that each veteran laid to rest there should be recognized with a flag.

So, with the help of the Murphy family, Poulin set the last flag there in December at the freshly scrubbed gravestone of War of 1812 veteran Daniel Briggs — William Briggs’ youngest son and East Auburn‘s first teacher.

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Photo caption:

During Christmas
week 2009, Eagle Scout Daniel Poulin of Auburn
made a stop at the Briggs
Cemetery to place an American flag on the gravestone of War of 1812 veteran
Daniel Briggs, the last veterans’ grave in that cemetery not marked by a flag.
Standing with Poulin, from left, are Auburn Parks & Recreation
Superintendent Leroy Walker, Frank Berry and Donna Berry of Grace Evangelical
Lutheran Church, Poulin, Raymond Lemieux, Poulin’s grandfather and a
representative of Boy Scoupt Troop 153, and Norm Rose, a volunteer who has
helped with Poulin’s project at the Auburn cemetery.

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