We’ve all seen them, the old cemetery on the side of a winding country road. Faded and sometimes crumbling headstones tilted or fallen over. Iron fences or stone walls overgrown with vegetation.
There is some old New England charm to the way they can appear out of nowhere, but the history they hold is valuable to learning about our state’s past and preserving it for the future.
One group, the Maine Old Cemetery Association, has taken on the seemingly never ending task of finding and documenting these 7,000-plus sites, educating others how to care for aging gravestones, and recording this important piece of our state’s story. We recently talked with the group’s president, Jessica Couture, to learn more about MOCA.
Name: Jessica Couture
Age: Younger than a marble gravestone
What is the Maine Old Cemetery Association?
Jessica Couture: We are a statewide, nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of Maine’s neglected cemeteries. Last year, we celebrated 50 years of our founding in 1968 by Dr. Hilda Fife.
Why is this organization important to our state’s history?
We have a boundless project called Maine Inscription Project. From the early days of MOCA, volunteers have recorded the information on gravestones all over the state. Roland Jordan, a longtime MOCA member, created the database and pulled together what is now over a million records of gravestones all over the state of Maine. The records of the graves are important to our state’s history because they are the connection with those who were here when our state began. The woods and fields are overtaking many of these often tiny cemeteries or single gravestones all over our state, which is a loss of history.
What is your favorite cemetery or gravestone discovery? What makes it special?
That is a nearly impossible question. I have an affinity for slate gravestones. They amaze me in how they are often 200 years old and can look like they were just carved and placed. Cast iron fences, gates and ornamentation are also an area of interest for me. I would say I like the many small discoveries. I enjoy doing the detective work and have spent a lot of time in many cemeteries, at workshops or otherwise, to find missing bases and pieces of stones or to study how things happened. Reuniting gravestones with their original site or getting the pieces back with one another is very satisfying.
Who belongs to the Maine Old Cemetery Association?
Anyone and everyone — genealogists, photographers, historians, writers, teachers. People join for the networking, presentations and cemetery tours at our spring, summer and fall program days around the state. Some like to photograph the artwork on the stones and everything related to old cemeteries. Others have specific searches and work to find connections for their missing family graves. Historians and those with military backgrounds work to make sure our veterans graves are known and cared for. Some study specific gravestone carvers and the origins of the stones. Others research the stories of those interred and retell their histories that had been forgotten.
If people are interested in the organization, how can they get involved?
Become a member and support Maine’s old cemeteries. Attend one of our gravestone preservation workshops and learn how to properly clean and/or repair gravestones. We will be in Lubec on July 10 to 13 for a beginner’s four-day workshop. We try to offer these at least every two years in different parts of Maine. They are an excellent way for people to attend and learn skills they can bring back to help their local cemeteries.
People can also help with the always ongoing cemetery transcriptions, both data entry and cemetery visits — some just need updating with GPS locations, modern directions and additional information such as epitaphs, which were often not recorded decades ago. We are always interested in cemetery-related articles for our website and quarterly newsletter. Make your voice heard with our Legislators, your city or town councils and select boards. Let your elected officials know the preservation of our old cemeteries is very important to you.
For more information about MOCA, visit moca-me.org or find them on Facebook.