It all began with some potted plants and basic gardening tools.
Sheryl Abernethy and Heather Su were looking to provide a little TLC to a local cemetery when a friend suggested the Monroe Community Cemetery on Route 17M in the Village of Monroe.
The historic nondenominational cemetery, established in 1787, is the final resting place of many of Monroe’s founding families and veterans of wars dating back to the Revolution.
More than they bargained for
Abernethy and Su first visited the cemetery in June with the idea of planting flowers and cleaning up neglected graves.
They found a lot more than they had bargained for:
Grass and weeds grew knee high in many areas of the 6.3-acre site.
While some graves were regularly maintained by family members of the deceased, many others, with no one left to tend them, were overgrown and deteriorating.
Headstones were damaged, toppled or partly buried by shifting ground.
Some were almost hidden by untrimmed vines and bushes planted years before.
Grass grew over many footstones.
“We realized,” Abernethy said, “the project was more than than the two of us could handle.”
The two women reached out initially to their fellow members at Monroe United Methodist Church, some of whom showed up to help.
Abernethy also approached Monroe Town Supervisor Tony Cardone to ask who was in charge of the cemetery. It turns out that towns in New York State become responsible for (and take over) the care and upkeep of cemeteries when a cemetery’s governing board is disbanded.
Although the Monroe Community Cemetery was incorporated in 1946, the group that had maintained it for years was no longer functioning.
Cardone lent his enthusiastic support to the cleanup project.
An article in The Photo News, along with word of mouth and posts on Monroe Matters, attracted a number of volunteers from the community.
Saturday a.m. routine: Trim, weed, plant, uncover and clean headstones
When the pandemic cancelled a planned summer mission project, members of the youth group of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church offered their services.
By mid-July, a dozen or more volunteers, ranging in age from 14 to 74 years, were assembling every Saturday morning to trim and weed, plant flowers and uncover and clean headstones.
The Town of Monroe mowed the property, carted away truckloads of brush and dead tree limbs, and repaired damaged fencing.
The town also bought more flowers to plant.
A community member contributed bulbs when she thinned out her garden.
Monroe United Methodist Church members provided pizza and snacks for the workers.
25 tombstones uncovered
In addition to their landscaping work, the volunteers uncovered at least 25 tombstones, including graves of Monroe’s early families and veterans of the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, Spanish American War, both world wars, Korean War and Vietnam War.
By November, when work wound down for the year, the cemetery looked very different from the place Abernethy and Su had first visited.
And the effort will continue. The volunteers, for many of whom the project has become a passion, plan to come back in the spring to clean and repair as many tombstones as possible and continue maintaining the untended graves.
Volunteers ‘making an impact in our town’
“The Town of Monroe has cared for the Monroe Community Cemetery for the past three years as the cemetery’s governing board disbanded,” the town supervisor said. “The efforts of the volunteer group have been very instrumental in making an impact in our town and beautifying the cemetery while, most importantly, preserving the honor of those buried there. We are very grateful to have such a dedicated group of volunteers putting in valuable time to enhance all the areas of the cemetery.”