Grave Expert Leads Tours at Oak Grove in Falmouth

CCB MEDIA PHOTO Donna Walcovy, superintendent of Oak Grove Cemetery in Falmouth, is leading history tours this summer in the graveyard.

CCB MEDIA PHOTO
Donna Walcovy, superintendent of Oak Grove Cemetery in Falmouth, is leading history tours this summer in the graveyard.

FALMOUTH – Donna Walcovy has long had an affinity for graveyards.

“My aunt and uncle were funeral directors in Pennsylvania and during a 10-year period they buried 56 members of the family, so I was constantly at Mass and then in a church for having a family member buried,” Walcovy said.

When she moved to the Cape, she joined the Falmouth Genealogical Society and the group started a project called the Cemetery Transcription Project.

“I was really appalled at the conditions of the gravestones and I said, somebody has to know how to fix these things. As it turns out, there are people who know how to fix them,” Walcovy said.

She researched the matter and took classes around the country to learn how to do the hands-on technique to repair gravestones, especially those in historic cemeteries where many gravestones are damaged.

“If you’re going to sit something outside for 250 years, it’s going to be attacked by the weather,” Walcovy said.

Walcovy came to cemetery work as a second career. She went to college as a film student at Emerson College in Boston and had a career as a teacher before learning how to restore gravestones and then turning her avocation into a job. She is now superintendent at Oak Grove Cemetery in Falmouth.

She has done cemetery preservation work locally in Falmouth and Mashpee, as well as in a historic burying ground in Philadelphia where, she said, she will someday be buried.

She clarified that the work she does, rather than restoring, is actually preserving and conserving.

“Restoration means make like new. I can’t make a gravestone that’s been sitting outside for 200 years look like new. We preserve it or we conserve it. . . . What it means to me really is preserving the history of a community where I work,” she said.

In Falmouth, she has completed several preservation projects in the East Falmouth Burying Ground, the Methodist Society Burying Ground and the Village Burying Ground in Woods Hole.

She is now working through a Falmouth Community Preservation grant on the burial lots of all the men who fought in the War of 1812 who are buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Falmouth.

Oak Grove Cemetery was founded in 1849.

This summer, Walcovy has been leading walking tours of the cemetery and the final historic walking tour will be offered at Oak Grove next week.

The tour will be held August 10 starting at 10 AM. Admission is free.

The tours began as a private history lesson on the occasion of the cemetery’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Phyllis Hunt, President of the Oak Grove Cemetery Association.

Hunt said, “Part of the program to celebrate the event was a tour of the oldest part of the cemetery led by our superintendent and Falmouth Cemetery Historian, Donna Walcovy. Our guests loved it so our board decided to offer a few tours for the public.”

Katharine Lee Bates, the author of the poem “America the Beautiful” is buried in Oak Grove and so are other significant people to the development and history of Falmouth. There are whaling captains, ship builders and war veterans from the Revolutionary War to the present among the 3,000 people buried in Oak Grove.

Besides Katharine Lee Bates, there are Captain Weston Jenkins, hero of the War of 1812; Captain Elijah Swift, ship builder of whalers who was involved in the Live Oak Trade with the Carolinas and founder of the Bank of Falmouth; Sylvia Donaldson, the first woman elected to the Massachusetts legislature; and Jonathan Green, Revolutionary War soldier.

Twenty men from Falmouth who served in the War of 1812 and the 35 men who fought in the Civil War are also buried in Oak Grove.

Walcovy’s tour includes Victorian children’s gravestones and cenotaphs and other symbolism on gravestones. Among the most unusual graves in Oak Grove is the so-called Mary Swift cradle grave, which was recently preserved.

*Cradle graves began appearing in American cemeteries in the early part of the 1800s. This type of marker became popular during the Civil War, but by the 1920s, they were disappearing from the cemetery scene. Although they can be found throughout the country, cradle graves were more popular in the South and Midwest regions,” according to Walcovy.

Despite the name, cradle graves were not just for children. Adult graves were also marked in this manner, such as Mary Swift who was 35 when she died.

The empty space between the curbed sides was usually filled with “blanket plantings,” flowers, grasses, or bushes that filled up the inside of the cradle grave, giving it the full and lush appearance of a bedspread, from spring through fall. In the winter, snow would take on the appearance of a blanket drifting over the grave.

Cradle graves usually are no longer cared for or maintained, Walcovy said, which is a shame since the choice of such a marker indicates someone had hopes the grave would be tended for years to come. Just this spring the cradle grave of Mary Swift was cleaned and planted by volunteers who will continue to maintain the grave at Oak Grove Cemetery for many years.

Oak Grove Cemetery is located at 46 Jones Road. Tours meet in front of the Chapel at 10 a.m.

Tours will last approximately one and a half hours to leave time for questions.

Listen below to Donna Walcovy talk about how gravestones and cemeteries can give us a history lesson.

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