Green Hill Cemetery grave markers need repairs

A gravestone is split in two, the top piece flat on the ground, with other in the distance at Green Hill Cemetery in Amsterdam on Thursday.

A gravestone is split in two, the top piece flat on the ground, with other in the distance at Green Hill Cemetery in Amsterdam on Thursday.

AMSTERDAM — Fifty-six gravesites with headstones at the Green Hill Cemetery are in disrepair and to fix that problem, the cemetery’s stewards plan to ask the state for money.

In a legal advertisement in Amsterdam’s Recorder newspaper on Wednesday, the Green Hill Cemetery Association took steps seeking a grant to reset and revive the dilapidated monuments and markers. Some are in such bad condition, the notice said, that they could “create a dangerous condition.”

“The cemetery is going on 175 years old. Many of those people were buried 150 years ago,” said Paul Damiano, the association’s president. “Who are you going to contact?”

The not-for-profit has no expectation that any relatives of those interred at the sites will materialize – those with names like Cole, and Olman, Schoonmaker and Konrad, Gottlieb and Tuft –  but the group is obligated to notify the public of its intent to make improvements at the city’s cemetery.

In the ad, readers with interest in the burial plots are asked to repair or remove the markers within 60 days, or the cemetery association could.

There are no plans to remove any of the markers, Damiano said. The legal step was required in order for the cemetery association to apply again this year for state grant funding to repair gravestones that are in danger of falling.

Green Hill Cemetery has received roughly $20,000 from the state Division of Cemeteries to repair about 20 to 30 markers in each of the past four or five years, Damiano said.

The cemetery association identifies the markers in the worst condition annually before applying for the funds. State officials visit the cemetery to select headstones for inclusion in the funding award.

Without state funding, Damiano said, there would be little the nonprofit cemetery association could do to repair the markers.

“We don’t have that kind of money,” he said.

Many of the relatives of those buried in the historic cemetery have died or moved away. Sales of the available plots for new burials are infrequent and the cemetery doesn’t charge permanent maintenance fees, Damian said.

Some families set up trusts to underwrite the cost of grave caretaking, but the money doesn’t last forever. Damiano received a notice recently from a bank handling a trust for grave caretaking. The money is gone and will no longer pay for Christmas decorations at that site.

In another, high-profile instance, a trust was established to care for the resting place of the late carpet manufacturer Stephen Sanford. The funds have been used over the years to repair windows in his ornate mausoleum and to repaint a rusting wrought-iron fence around the burial site. The fund is still viable, but without that resource, the cemetery will not be able to maintain that upkeep.

The cemetery spans about 40 acres and holds more than 15,000 graves. Providing individual care to each stone would be impossible. Just mowing the grass costs the cemetery association more than $20,000 a year, Damiano said.

Without money coming in, he said the cemetery association fundraises each year to contribute to groundskeeping costs. Besides mowing, the next priority is removing trees that are in danger of falling and damaging gravestones. The association replaces trees with flowering varieties for aesthetic purposes.

Association volunteers also help with maintenance. Pete Phelps uses his backhoe to shift markers back into place that appear in danger of falling.

Saving headstones before they are lost forever is invaluable, according to Jerry Snyder, co-founder of the nonprofit Historic Amsterdam Leader (HAL). He appreciated the existence of the state fund to repair damaged grave markers.

“It’s hard to walk by a stone and see it laying on the ground,” Snyder said. “Everybody has a story. They deserve the respect and dignity of having it taken care of. That’s the least we can do.”

HAL has traditionally hosted ghost tours in the cemetery each fall — sharing true stories of those buried there, from the city’s founders to the everyday folks who were just as integral to Amsterdam — hoping to raise awareness of the Green Hill Cemetery.

“It’s a huge part of the history of the city,” Snyder said. “It’s just a treasure trove of information.”

The city’s historic group tries to raise awareness of the area’s past to help in its preservation. A portion of the proceeds from the ghost tours has always been shared with the cemetery association to contribute to Green Hill’s upkeep.

“So many of the oldest cemeteries are struggling for money,” Snyder said. “The maintenance costs are outrageous.”

Amsterdam already lost two historic cemeteries in the 19th century when the land was reclaimed for development. The Green Hill Cemetery was established in 1858 to fill the need for a cemetery within the city in an area that would not face similar circumstances. The site was part of the rural cemetery movement that designed burial grounds to also serve as park spaces.

“It was a park place where people went to enjoy the art, relax and see nature before there were public parks,” Snyder said. “Cemeteries were not just for those who died; they were for those who were still alive.”

The cemetery at one time featured flower beds with foot paths and a fountain for community members to enjoy while visiting. Although many landscaping elements have been lost, Snyder said the cemetery is still beautiful.

The grave markers themselves are works of art, with details and ornate designs uncommon among modern cemeteries.

“Historically it’s important because of who is there, and aesthetically, I think it’s a beautiful cemetery,” Snyder said.

If a gravestone falls, Damiano said the state does not provide funding for its repair, meaning the marker and its history are lost.

“Once they fall, New York state won’t set them back up, and we don’t have the kind of money to do that either,” Damiano said.

He is hopeful the Green Hill Cemetery Association’s grant application is successful again this year to help maintain the historic cemetery.

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

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