Monday, April 15, 2024

A volunteer program is working to preserve history through tombstones

Volunteers help to preserve tombstones at Cedar Grove Cemetery which dates back to 1860. (WYDaily/Courtesy Bill Brown)
Volunteers help to preserve tombstones at Cedar Grove Cemetery which dates back to 1860. (WYDaily/Courtesy Bill Brown)

When Bill Brown steps onto the grounds of Cedar Grove Cemetery, he doesn’t just see thousands of graves— he sees the history of a city.

Brown is the caretaker — or sexton — of Cedar Grove Cemetery which is home to approximately 8,000 grave sites. While some of these are fairly new, about 3,000 of them date back to over a century ago.

The Cedar Grove Cemetery first opened in 1860 and contains the final resting place for what Brown says are a lot of prominent people that helped rebuild the city after the Civil War.

But with such precious mementos of history also comes a lot of work in preservation.

“It’s not a job, it’s a duty,” Brown said. “When you come out here and dealing with a family history, the history of a city, it’s more than a job—you’re a teller of stories.”

Brown said he didn’t always set out to be a cemetery caretaker, though. In fact, before the mid-2000s he hadn’t even been on a grave site since his grandmother died in 1976.

When Brown and his wife traveled to Ireland, he said he saw people at historic grave sites working to preserve history and became inspired to do the same.

In 2006, Brown became caretaker of Cedar Grove Cemetery — he said he came into the position to see many of the historic gravestones in rough shape. 

“I saw it as our history and it needed to be maintained,” he said. “I came into the job thinking about the people that love this city and want to be a part of it.”

With the large size of work needed to be done and time not necessarily on his side for preservation, Brown found the best solution for maintaining the historic markers was to reach out to the community for help.

In 2017, Brown started a biannual cleanup program where volunteers came out to help clean and restore the historic tombstones.

From that program, a core group of approximately 10 people emerged who comes out and attends to the gravestones every week. Since then, Brown said he is amazed to see how far the cemetery has come and the dedication locals feel toward it.

“I had an idea and knew there was no way I could do the project [of preserving the tombstones] myself,” he said. “So when you have a group of people like this, you’re actually being able to take care of more families and preserving it for future generations. Help of the community is priceless in preserving the history and dignity of this cemetery.”

One of the ways Brown has saved a bit of history from this work is by having volunteers help with the digital archive of the stones. Volunteers will take part in a process Brown calls “rubbing,” which is taking carbon paper and making an imprint of the stones. The imprints are then taken to the city’s Public Works Department where they can be stored in a catalog.   

Brown said his goal in the next 10 years is to have at least every stone in the historic portion of the cemetery attended to. However, he said he knows not all of them will survive that long because some are simply just too old. 

But with the help of the community, Brown said he hopes to see the work continue for many years to come.

“Williamsburg has a lot of people invested in its history, its culture,” he said. “It’s something to preserve. It’s something to be proud of.”

To learn how to volunteer, visit the City of Williamsburg online.

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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