Volunteers Take Pride in Preserving and Restoring Vermont’s Old Cemeteries
October 28, 2022
When vandals damaged 200 gravestones at the historic Village Cemetery in Bennington last weekend, Tom Giffin immediately reached out to the town about how he could help. Giffin, of Rutland, is president of Vermont Old Cemetery Association (VOCA), a volunteer organization founded in 1958 to restore and preserve neglected, damaged, and abandoned cemeteries in Vermont.
The organization will help repair the overturned and broken stones as tending to gravestones is at the heart of VOCA’s mission.
-VOCA President Tom Giffin works with a group of volunteers at Lakeview Cemetery in Burlington.
“We’re totally grassroots, non-profit, and volunteer-run,” Giffin said during a recent visit to West Street Cemetery in Rutland, a once-abandoned cemetery in the city’s downtown area. That cemetery includes gravesites for prominent people, including former Vermont Governor Israel Smith, a Revolutionary War captain, and two soldiers. “At no charge to the communities, we come in and do this work. You can’t get more Vermont than that.”
Between last May and October, VOCA helped repair and clean gravestones in cemeteries from Burlington to Rutland to Hardwick. The organization also offers training sessions around the state and provides grants to communities interested in restoring abandoned and neglected cemeteries.
The Heart of the Vermont Old Cemetery Association
UVM Professor Leon W. Dean founded VOCA in 1958. His granddaughter, Dianne Leary, is the organization’s vice president and grants administrator. Like some of VOCA’s volunteers, she spends nearly every Saturday between May and October helping repair, clean, or straighten gravestones.
“I love it,” said Leary, of Charlotte. “I don’t know what to do if I have a Saturday and I’m not digging in the dirt in a cemetery. I’d feel absolutely lost.”
-Steve Luce volunteers at Lakeview Cemetery in September. His father lived at the Home for Destitute Children before being adopted in the 1920s.
At Lakeview Cemetery in Burlington, Giffin, Leary, and dozens of volunteers from VOCA and the Howard Center spent a day restoring and resetting nearly 50 gravestone markers in September. The plots belong to children who were residents of the Home for Destitute Children, an orphanage that operated between 1865 and 1941.
Steve Luce, of Underhill, attended the September workday at Lakeview Cemetery. His father, who died about 20 years ago, lived at the Home for Destitute Children until he was 18 months old before being adopted in the late 1920s.
“Even though my father was lucky enough not to end up here, my wife and I feel a deep connection to the Home for Destitute Children,” Luce said. “And this seemed like the right volunteer opportunity to be part of.”
‘Stewardship for Our Ancestors’
-Dianne Leary helps reset old gravestones belonging to children from the Home for Destitute Children.
Ian Gramling of Ferrisburgh joined VOCA about a year ago and participated at the Lakeview Cemetery workday. A history buff and Revolutionary War re-enactor, Gramling lives next to Carter Cemetery in Monkton, where some gravestones date back to the early 1800s. He said he prefers a hands-on approach to learn more about history.
“I love books and all, but you’ve got to be able to use your hands to feel the full effect of the people who came before us, what they were all about, and the things they did that impact us today,” he said. “It’s kind of like stewardship for our ancestors.”
Leary agreed, pointing out that the workday at Lakeview Cemetery was at the very core of VOCA’s mission.
“To see the stones of baby Ruth or baby Harry, they never had a chance in life,” she said. “The best we can give them is, ‘You’re being taken care of now.’ We care, still, a hundred years or more later.”
-VOCA volunteers help repair and restore old cemeteries around the state between May and October.
Happy Vermont Podcast: Vermont Old Cemetery Association
In this episode of Happy Vermont, VOCA Vice President Dianne Leary talks about her grandfather’s legacy and what volunteering in cemeteries means to her. You can find Happy Vermont’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find podcasts.