Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sharp stone

A while back, I read a book about Massachusetts gravestones loaned to me by a friend who works at the local cemetery.* The book is beautifully laid out and I enjoyed winnowing the photos of 18th c. grave markers down to the one I like best, that of Capt. Levi Ely (1732-1780) in Park Street Cemetery in West Springfield (pictured, more photos here). Not only does Capt. Ely have a nice stone, he's got an interesting story, which I summarize here:
Levi was the 5th child born to Samuel and Abigail Warriner Ely in Springfield, Mass. He married Abigail Sergeant in 1758 and together they had 11 children - Lucretia, Huldah, Jerusha, Levi, George, Daniel, Sabra, Theodosia, Solomon, Elihu, and Abigail ("Nabby") - whom they raised near the First Congregational church (est. 1698) and adjacent graveyard. It was there that the body of Capt. Ely was returned and interred after he died in New York during a short expedition against the Indians. Ely had led 88 his his townsmen and neighbors into combat near the Mohawk River in the Battle of Klock's Field just days before their terms were due to expire. Along with 28 other soldiers of a total force of 381, he was killed in the service of his country, as his gravestone commemorates in verse: "Who dies in youth and vigor, dies the best; Struck thro' with wounds, all honest on the breast."
Ely was 48 and would have expected to live into his 60s.

Longevity is something that can be analyzed from the dates recorded on gravestones. The birth and death dates on the stones, as well as the family relationships, are used by genealogists to confirm their ancestry. But grave markers - because the dates of death indicate when the stones were erected and began to face the elements - are also evidence of weathering and how its rate has changed since the Industrial Revolution due to pollutants in the atmosphere. Gary Lewis of the Geological Society of America heads the Gravestone Project, which recruits volunteers all over the world to measure gravestones. Using calipers, they measure the width at specified points on the stone and - if the markers have lead letters on them - measure how much the stone has worn away from the lettering. "What we are trying to do is not just look at damage by acid rain, but we are trying to see how acid rain has changed over time," says Lewis. The 2 years' worth of data collected so far show that cemeteries in big cities seem to be weathering most rapidly, not surprising since sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other acid rain-causing pollutants are released over urban areas. Laura Guertin has been participating in the project since 2011 and enlists her students to collect measurements and make projections. She laughs, "At first they are a little creeped out. I tell them, 'Don't worry, I will bring you all back with me.'"

*Thanks, Sally!

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