Cemetery survey IDs 40 unmarked veteran graves

Effort underway to obtain markers

The scene inside Abington’s Mount Vernon Cemetery every Memorial Day and Veterans Day can be moving – hundreds and hundreds of small American flags moving in the breeze, marking the final resting location of veterans, including some who made the ultimate sacrifice. 

But it turns out not every veteran interred in the cemetery’s 22 acres receives this somber honor. Three years of painstaking research has revealed that there are 40 veterans buried in Mount Vernon currently without a headstone, plaque, or any other marker memorializing their presence. 

Barbara Shepard-Martini showing off grave markers she helped uncover

Barbara Shepard-Martini documented the unmarked veteran grave sites while conducting a larger research project of identifying everyone buried in the 169-year old cemetery. 

“I said ‘Something needs to be done,'” Shepard-Martini said. “These guys put their lives on the line.”

The 40 unmarked graves hold the remains of veterans dating back to the Revolutionary War, as well as the Civil War, World War I & II, and the Vietnam War. 

Shepard-Martini said the lack of markers isn’t due to anything nefarious or negligent; rather sometimes the veterans were single, lacked any close family members, or were indigent, and so no marker was purchased. 

Advocates for veterans in Abington are now working to change that. 

A veterans grave site at Mount Vernon Cemetery

“It’s a shame this happened,” Abington Veterans Agent Adam Gunn said. “[Arranging for grave markers] is the least we can do to keep honoring them.”

Armed with Shepard-Martini’s list, Gunn is going to be working in the coming months with the Rev. Kristy Coburn, the current chair of the town Veterans Memorial Committee and commander of the Lewis V. Dorsey American Legion Post 112, to find ways to obtain markers for the veterans. [Shepard-Martini will be moving south in a couple months]

The Rev. Coburn said she was “shocked and heartbroken” to hear about the unmarked veteran graves. 

One of the records at Mount Vernon Cemetery detailing those buried in the 22-acre site.

“Every person deserves a grave marking,” she said. “As a veteran, I believe it is the least we can do for those who have served our country in defense of freedom.”

The effort started when Shepard-Martini, a Bridgewater native now living in Rockland, traveled to Mount Vernon Cemetery with her husband to find his great-grandfather’s grave. Cemetery Superintendent John Burnett took them right to the spot, which is marked with a traditional headstone.

Limestone grave markers at Mount Vernon Cemetery restored by Shepard-Martini

But a further conversation with Burnett revealed that there were potentially thousands of people buried in Mount Vernon without any markers, meaning the next family coming to look for a loved one’s resting spot may not be so lucky. 

Nowadays, most plots only hold one or two family members and typically they have a gravestone. But decades ago family plots were more standard. Not every person who was interred received a marker. And many stones over the decades fell and became lost under layers of grass clippings, fallen leaves, and other debris.

Shepard-Martini, who has been involved with genealogical research for more than 30 years, received permission from Burnett and the Mount Vernon Cemetery Corp. Board of Trustees to go through the cemetery’s records and try to identify everyone buried there since it opened in 1852.

Entries in Mount Vernon Cemetery’s original burial log book dating back to 1852

For hours and hours every week Shepard-Martini poured over old ledgers, burial records, and a rolodex of plots to cross reference names, internment dates, and burial sites. She created grid maps of the entire 22-acre cemetery and penciled in the names of owners. She also photographed each page of the cemetery’s original 169-year old burial log as backup in case anything ever happened to it. 

“It was an overwhelming task when you look at the scope of it,” said Shepard-Martini, who called it effectively an unpaid full-time job. 

After three years she had created a fully digitized spreadsheet of every man, woman, child buried in Mount Vernon Cemetery. There were even a few pets on her list. 

One of Shepard-Martini’s grids of Mount Vernon burial plots containing family names

The final numbers stunned cemetery officials. While there are 3,940 sites marked on findagrave.com, 10,004 people actually call the cemetery their final resting place.

George Whiting, the president of the Mt. Vernon Cemetery Association, said it was “just incredible” to see the final number of people buried in the cemetery. 

“I was shocked,” he said. “I knew it was a large number but I was shocked at the actual count.”

Whiting, who has been on the cemetery board since 1978, said records over the decades under the control of different leaders had not been kept in the most detailed, organized manner. “Superhuman”, “herculean”, and “marvelous” are some of the adjectives Whiting used to describe Shepard-Martini’s efforts. 

“It is the biggest plus I can imagine for the cemetery,” he said. “It gives everybody in the world access to who’s buried where.”

Some of the gravestone etchings in Mount Vernon Cemetery

Shepard-Martini has uploaded her work to the findagrave.com website, where family members and researchers can look up burial locations for millions of deceased.

“I’d have people say to me ‘I know my great-grandmother is in here somewhere, but there’s 22 acres,” she said. ““My goal was to get someone within 10 feet of their ancestor’s grave.”

While compiling her spreadsheet, Shepard-Martini also went out and lifted headstones when possible, pieced together broken ones, and cleaned many of those belonging to veterans. She uses the same specialized cleaning solution that’s used at Arlington National Cemetery (which costs $50 per bottle) to remove the moss, lichen, mildew, and other organics from the limestone, granite or slate markers. Traditional exterior cleaners like bleach or trisodium phosphate are more likely to get into porous stones and damage them, she said. 

Broken grave markers Shepard-Martini and her husband pieced together and cleaned

Whiting asked that visitors don’t try to lift gravestones, as they are very heavy. 

“They’re deceiving in their heft, so it would be easy for one to topple over onto him or herself,” he said. 

As of now, efforts are shifting to securing grave markers for those 40 veterans lying anonymously. The federal Veterans Administration has a grant program that covers the cost of grave markers, however, Gunn said each application requires significant documentation, including discharge papers and gravesite photos. Complicating the process is that Mount Vernon is a privately owned cemetery. 

“She did a lot of the hard parts, but this is going to take a while,” Gunn said. “We’re at a good starting point thanks to Barbara.”

The Rev. Coburn called Shepard-Martini’s efforts a “priceless gift to our community” as well as to those veterans.

“I am grateful beyond words for what she’s done, and that she shared it with me so that I can help complete this important work,” she said.