Headstone restoration project underway at Amherst’s 18th-century West Cemetery

  • Past Amherst area residents Henry Jackson, center, Lt. Frazar Stearns, left, and Anna Reed Goodwin are featured on the Amherst Community History Mural, seen through the adjacent West Cemetery fence. The current renovation project includes work on the African American section of the graveyard, which dates to 1730. AP

  • Ludlow Memorial Co. working on headstones at West Cemetery in Amherst. —Submitted Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 7/28/2022 2:48:56 PM

AMHERST — Perhaps best known as the final resting place of Emily Dickinson, the Belle of Amherst, the West Cemetery is undergoing a renovation this summer to improve two areas, including the section where some Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War are buried.

Contractors from Ludlow Memorial Co. have been at the downtown cemetery cleaning, resetting, repairing and assessing numerous headstones, obelisks and monuments.

Funded through $40,000 from the Community Preservation Act account, managed by Planning Department staff and recommended by the Historical Commission, the project includes improvements to the African American section, in the southeast corner, which is featured prominently in annual Juneteenth celebrations, and also encompasses the 1870s knoll in the northern section of the cemetery.

Planner Ben Breger says the latest project builds on two decades of investment by Amherst in the town’s oldest cemetery, which dates to 1730, or 29 years before the town split off from Hadley.

“The restoration of headstones is highly important in preserving the historic integrity of the cemetery and maintaining safety for visitors,” Breger said.

The specific work includes cleaning headstones using a special treatment to remove biological growth, and resetting and repairing fallen and cracked stones using heavy equipment and mortar. This marks the third phase of a project that is restoring 50 to 60 badly damaged headstones.

Breger said Ludlow Memorial will also be developing a report for the town with an assessment and inventory of future headstone repairs at the cemetery.

The latest project follows others that have been undertaken since the 1998 designation of the cemetery as one of the state’s 10 most endangered historic resources, including getting it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  

An earlier project, begun in 2005 and completed four years later, conserved and restored more than 260 headstones in the oldest sections of the cemetery at a cost of $150,000. In 2018, restoration of the 1870 section of the cemetery began with a total of 58 stones being repaired at a cost of $50,000.

Other projects completed are the 1999 West Cemetery Preservation Plan, restoration of the historic Gaylord and Burnett gates, and the production of the Amherst History Mural. In addition, the Department of Public Works’ Grounds and Maintenance Division manages the West Cemetery grounds and has controlled vegetation.

Approaching its 300th anniversary, West Cemetery was expanded in 1833 and 1870.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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