Joel Snodgrass is an architect with more than two decades of experience in historic preservation and conservation projects across Long Island.
For the past four years, he has been working with a team of volunteers to repair cracks, remove unsightly caulking and shore up fallen stones at the Old Burying Ground in Southold. The work has restored dozens of stones in the historic cemetery, located next to First Presbyterian Church in Southold.
But this Friday, Mr. Snodgrass will pay a visit to the property for a different reason. He will meet with church and cemetery officials, as well as investigators from the Southold Town Police Department, to help determine if the destruction of 17 headstones at the cemetery last week was an act of God, the consequence of carelessness or the brazen work of vandals.
“I’ve only seen photographs,” Mr. Snodgrass said in an interview this week. “From what I’ve seen, it appears to be vandalism, but I couldn’t say for sure at this point.”
It’s a mystery that has church and cemetery officials sharing very little about their thoughts on the damage as they wait for Mr. Snodgrass and police detectives to investigate further.
Cemetery restoration volunteer Fred Andrews, whose wife, Jane, has led volunteer efforts there and helped raise tens of thousands of dollars to restore the more than 350-year-old cemetery, said police have asked that church and cemetery officials “not jump to any conclusion to call it vandalism.”
The Rev. Peter Kelley of First Presbyterian Church went so far as to say it is unclear if some headstones that were being restored had simply fallen over.
Mr. Andrews said a detective pointed out that the damaged stones were scattered throughout the cemetery and not bunched together, as would be typical of a “classic incident” of vandalism.
“We have an investigation that hasn’t yet reached a conclusion,” Mr. Andrews said. “We don’t know if someone was huffing and puffing and blew the house down.
“But the desecration of a church cemetery is a pretty serious thing,” he added.
A Southold Town police report shows officers were notified of the damage Friday evening. Police Chief Martin Flatley said it’s been difficult to ascertain if criminal mischief was a factor.
“We just have damaged headstones,” he said. “We don’t have a lot else to work with at this time.”
Mr. Snodgrass said part of what he’ll be looking at Friday will be the coloration of the breaks in the headstones.
Clean white breaks in the stone indicate fresh damage. Coloration is an indication of restorative work.
“From the photos I’ve seen, it looks like a mix of both,” he said.
Mr. Snodgrass said cemetery vandalism is something people in his line of work encounter. Sometimes, he said, it might not be intentional vandalism.
“It could be local teenagers with a little fuel in them wandering over to the cemetery, horsing around and bumping into stones, knocking them over,” he said.
Another scenario he’s encountered is unintentional damage caused by landscapers or caretakers, though he stressed that stewards of this particular cemetery have been vigilant over the years.
Mother Nature is the least likely suspect, Mr. Snodgrass said. Despite a storm that led to a heavy downpour and some lightning across the North Fork last Thursday, he said he can’t imagine it would have caused damage on the scale of what has been observed.
“This cemetery survived the Hurricane of ’38 and Sandy,” he pointed out.
Regardless of the culprit, the events of last week are sure to add time and cost to the ongoing cemetery project.
Mr. Andrews said restoration of an individual stone can cost as much as $2,000.
Mr. Snodgrass said it’s difficult to put a number on the damage caused, because pricing comes down to the cost of time and materials.
Mr. Andrews said the oldest of the cemetery’s more than 750 stones — located in the northwest corner, designated the Old Burying Ground — were spared. Among the notable markers that can be found there are the box tomb of Barnabas Horton (1680), who helped found the town, and the grave of Helena Underhill (1658), the oldest one on the property.
Mr. Andrews said that, based on his assessment during a visit to the site Saturday, the damaged stones appear to be in a newer section of the cemetery, though new is a relative term.
“Some were from the 19th century,” he said.
With Jen Nuzzo
Top Caption: The late 19th Century headstone of Jonathan S. Overton Saturday, after damage was discovered at a Southold cemetery. (Credit: Fred Andrews)