LEON — Amanda Brainard continues her mission to preserve old cemeteries and bring them back to their former glory. Most recently, her focus has been on Leon’s Treat Cemetery located along Route 62.
With a passion to protect the cemetery from neglect and decay, Brainard, Town Supervisor Frederick Filock; Tim Stockman, gravedigger; and Highway Superintendent Joel Fieblekorn are focusing on a number of headstones that desperately need attention. The crew has been busy all summer digging new foundations, replacing and rebuilding.
Brainard said about 10 to 15 headstones are scheduled for repair so far. She said some have completely fallen apart, and they felt others were extremely dangerous for people to be around.
“Tim Stockman has done all of the repairs with help from his son and a crew he relies on for this type of work,” she said. “Joel Fieblekorn has provided heavy equipment, such as a backhoe, that we used to move the bigger stones so we could build the foundations.”
In order to repair many of the stones, Brainard said they are first replacing or building entirely new foundations from scratch to help prevent the headstones from experiencing issues related to environmental factors like frost upheaval.
According to Brainard, Treat Cemetery was initially Fairview Cemetery, which was the original cemetery for the town of Leon. She said Fairview Cemetery was utilized from at least 1817 to the late 1880s. It was moved across the road, circa 1900, so the majority of headstones they are repairing are between 100 to 170 years old.
“The way the headstones were stabilized back then was without foundations. If a corner needed support, they shimmed it with whatever flat rocks they could find. Everything was done by hand,” she said. “The ground in Treat Cemetery is clay with a lot of big rocks. It can sometimes be very difficult to dig today — even with a backhoe when we have to do a burial.”
Brainard said, in a nonprofit cemetery situation, repair of headstones is the responsibility of the family. However, in a municipal cemetery situation, such as Leon’s, it’s a fine line between whether it is the town’s responsibility or the family’s responsibility.
“I have been told by the New York State Division of Cemeteries in my work with nonprofit cemeteries that it is not the responsibility of the cemetery to take on those repair costs if it is a nonprofit,” she said. “However, Treat Cemetery is a municipal cemetery.”
The town has decided to repair the headstones that Brainard said she has been requested by families to repair, as well as older headstones that are in immediate need of repair or pose a danger to cemetery visitors.
Brainard and town officials decided to take responsibility for the repair of those headstones. She said this is particularly because Treat Cemetery is very large and on the main road through Leon.
“When people come here from Niagara Falls, for example, they are often coming from all over the world and we would prefer the cemetery to look acceptable and show that the town cares,” she said.
Brainard said Leon is the only municipality in the region undertaking such work. She said the ongoing project commenced July 11 and is weather dependent, so it won't happen overnight.
Although her expertise in the field of cemetery studies has aided the town with the repair work, she said Stockman knows more about working with the monuments. Her expertise is mainly in cleaning the monuments appropriately.
“I feel that part of my responsibility as the cemetery records keeper for the Town of Leon is making sure the headstones are readable and clear of biological growth,” she said.
A cultural anthropologist and independent researcher, Brainard has been working as the sexton and cemetery records keeper for the Town of Leon since 2014. In 2017, she was recognized by “USA Today ”as a regional authority in cemetery restoration and preservation efforts.
The article, “As cemeteries struggle, gravestones sink into oblivion,” by Meaghan M. McDermott, was first published in the “Rochester Democrat and Chronicle” and reviewed the plight of old, abandoned rural cemeteries.
Brainard said there are few, if any, funding options for cemetery associations and town boards in the Northeast to turn to for assistance in preserving their old cemeteries. Frustrated by the lack of cemetery funding, she founded the Northeastern Coalition for Cemetery Studies (NCCS) in July 2016 with the goal of helping Leon and other communities preserve their rural cemeteries. She said it’s going very well, and significant progress is being made with NCCS.
For more information, contact the Leon town officials and council at leonny.org.
(Contact press reporter Deb Everts at firstname.lastname@example.org)