Brendan O’Brien cleans a headstone at the Rumney Marsh Burial Ground in Revere.

Saugus teacher helps keep history alive

By Jim Correale

REVERE — It's a sunny July morning, and Eliza Belcher is coming back to life.

Well, not physically — that would be scary — but her name is once again visible on the slate stone that marks her grave. It's probably looking as good as it has at any time since 1837, when Eliza was laid to rest in the Rumney Marsh Burial Ground.

The bandbox of a cemetery is nestled snugly in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Revere, and Brendan O'Brien — one of the volunteers who keeps the grounds tidy and fixes broken headstones—is scrubbing the grime off Belcher's name.

Such attention wasn't always the case for the city's only graveyard, located on Butler Street, between Elm and Bixby streets. For much of the 20th century, the place was neglected. Trees were overgrown, and some of the grave markers were toppled or scattered about in pieces. 

After the last interment, in 1929, it seems that Rumney Marsh was mostly forgotten, except for the neighborhood kids who rode their bikes through or played hide-and-seek among the headstones. 

In a Boston Globe story from early 2008, Revere City Councilor Ira Novoselsky and Nicholas Bua, the city's former director of veterans' services, walked through the cemetery and called the conditions "deplorable."

The pair brought in others to form the Rumney Marsh Burial Ground Renovation Committee, and O'Brien, who teaches at Saugus High School and lives in Revere, just a couple of blocks from the graveyard, came aboard three years ago.

"I was a closet goth," the 42-year-old O'Brien says of the interest in horror movies and scary stories he first embraced in his youth. "And I thought, 'How can I turn this "spooky" thing into an actual hobby and practice.'"

After volunteering on projects at cemeteries in Ipswich and Gloucester, he realized that there was work to be done a lot closer to home and he joined the renovation committee.

"They were totally welcoming," O'Brien said. "They're a good group, and I'm grateful they gave me a chance to help out."

He adds that the efforts of the committee in the 10 years before he came aboard kept the graveyard in "exceptional condition"— a change from what the Globe had witnessed a dozen years ago. 

"I've seen a lot of cemeteries that are this vintage," he said, "and are in far worse shape than this."  

O'Brien opens and closes Rumney Marsh daily, and manages its social media presence — on Instagram, Facebook and a web site. At least twice a month he spends time working on the stones.  

"Everybody deserves a clean gravestone. This is the last thing that says this person lived, breathed, existed, so it should at the very least be legible."

This can be a tough challenge. Though the earliest burials — the first recorded was Mary Smith is 1693 — are marked with slate, the fashion switched to marble in the 1800s. This was, O'Brien says, "a disastrous decision."

Today, for the most part, the words and images carved into slate are sharp and clear, but the marble inscriptions look as though they're melting into the stone.

"It holds up terribly. They thought it looked nicer, and when they're brand new they are spectacular. They just didn't count on environmental things, pollution, acid rain."

In addition to exposure to the elements, organic material can also cause damage over time. Moss, lichens and fungi often grow on the stones, eating away at the facades and digging into cracks, enlarging them.

"These stones have lasted so long; it'd be a shame to let them deteriorate."

With a pump sprayer filled with water and a soft-bristled brush, O'Brien gets the slate stones clean and easy to read — though some are poking from the ground at odd angles. Tree roots, as well as the settling of the earth, are responsible for tilting the markers.

On marble, O'Brien uses a commercial product that works its way into the pores of the stone. It might take weeks, but the spray will kill the organic matter and the rain will wash it away. Still, there's no remedy for the "sugaring,"tiny white chips crumbling over time, that happens to the marble markers.

With singing birds and dappled sunlight, Rumney Marsh is a little oasis surrounded on three sides by modest houses. It's not hard to forget that the bustle of Broadway is just a few blocks away, and Route 1A is just down the street.  

"It's easy to get engrossed in the work here, and then someone comes up behind you, and says, 'Excuse me,' and you jump. Happens all the time."

Another element that O'Brien enjoys is digging into the history of those buried at Rumney Marsh. There are veterans from the American Revolution and the Civil War, as well as a few from previous entanglements with Native Americans.

Deane Winthrop, the son of John Winthrop, one of the founders of Boston and a governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is interred here, as are numerous members of the Pratt family, for whom Prattville in Chelsea is named.

Also, 16 individuals who at one time had been slaves are buried in unmarked graves, mostly along the Butler Street wall. There are now two plaques marking the site, listing the slaves' names and whatever other relevant information exists.

"It's unique to have them. You almost never see clear indications of slave burials," O'Brien says. "Actual gravestones are few and far between. To have so many and to know where they are and to have them commemorated like that is really unique."

One of the former slaves was Job Morrow, who served in the colonial army during the American Revolution, defending Winthrop against the British. Morrow became a free man when Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783, and he lived to be 100 years old, dying in 1836.

At least one of the cemetery's neighbors believes that not all its guests are resting quietly. One night, when her cat got loose and climbed into a tree, a nearby resident took a ladder into the graveyard to rescue it, she told O'Brien. When she looked down she "saw a man in a Union uniform walking slowly across the cemetery to the soldiers' graves" along the back side. When she looked again, the apparition was gone.

Otherwise, the more than 400 souls buried at Rumney Marsh seem to be at peace, and the renovation committee will continue working to keep their final resting place in good condition.

"You get hit with how amazing it is that there's a stone here that was put in the ground in 1693, and it hasn't moved since," O'Brien says. "You get struck by the power, the staying power, of something like that."


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