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United Methodist reveals past by cleaning tombstones

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A UMNS photo by Jim Melchiorre

Miles Beaston cleans gravestones at Snyders Church Cemetery in New Bloomfield, Pa.
July 26, 2005

By James Melchiorre*

NEW BLOOMFIELD, Pa. (UMNS) - The dates and words on a tombstone serve as a snapshot of a life, but only if they can be read.

Five years ago, most of the markers in the Snyder United Methodist Church Cemetery in New Bloomfield were unreadable.

"When we first started, I would say there were 80 stones," said Miles "Mike" Beaston. "And out of those 80 stones, you might have been able to read 5 percent of them."

That's when Beaston decided to make restoration of those tombstones his life's work.

With help from his wife, Ethel, he has cleaned more than 30 grave markers of mildew, moss and accumulated dirt.

Each time he does, Beaston opens a window to the past.

On a hot and humid summer day, Beaston knelt in the cemetery, armed with a battery-powered sander and a wire brush, patiently working on each of the four sides of a small obelisk.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Jim Melchiorre

Miles Beaston estimates that only 5 percent of the tombstones in his church cemetery are legible.
"Now we got the writing over here," he announced. "So we'll see who this is."

The marker on the obelisk identified the resting place of two sisters who died before their first birthdays.

The Snyder church cemetery dates back to 1814, when it was established by a German shoemaker named Johannes Schneider. After arriving in the United States, he became a circuit rider, an itinerant preacher of the Gospel in lightly populated rural areas from Maryland, through Pennsylvania, north to New York and west to Ohio.

Schneider eventually settled in the area that is now New Bloomfield, about 25 miles northwest of Harrisburg.

He organized the United Brethren congregation (United Methodist since the merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren denominations in 1968), bestowed on it his anglicized name and served as its first pastor.

Snyder died in 1845, and his body rests beside that of his wife, Katharina, in the center of the graveyard.

Beaston became a member of the church in 1957 and said his lifelong love of history provides much of the motivation for his tombstone restoration work.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Jim Melchiorre

Algae, car exhaust and weed killers can damage tombstones.
"One has to respect, when you look back and see how and what the forerunners of our faith went through to promote the Gospel," Beaston said. "I do have tremendous respect for that."

Deteriorating tombstones are not unique to his community.

John Walters, a tombstone restoration expert from Connersville, Ind., said he gets plenty of phone calls asking for help. His nickname is the "Graveyard Groomer."

Walters estimated that he has worked on almost 10,000 tombstones that have become unreadable. "I quit keeping track after 3,000," he said. He blamed lichen, a growth formed by the combination of algae and fungi, car and truck exhaust, and commercial weed killers.

Simply washing a tombstone's surface with ammonia and water can often improve its condition significantly, according to Walters.

Grave markers made from granite are "practically weather-proof," Walters said. But granite did not come into widespread use until after 1900. It's the marble and limestone tombstones of the 19th century that are most likely to be found in critical condition. 

"Somebody is going to have to take responsibility for these pioneer cemeteries," Walters said.

Throughout the two and a half centuries since the beginning of the Snyder church, New Bloomfield has remained a small community.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Jim Melchiorre

Miles Beaston says his love of history motivates him to restore tombstones.
On the same late June afternoon when Beaston labored to reveal details on the oldest tombstones, two church members strolled through the cemetery with maps and historical documents, looking for their own family names.

"I can remember many years ago when I would come by the cemetery here," said Bob Rathfon. "It was always a sad feeling to see it in such a deteriorating condition."

"I'm thankful we have somebody like Miles," he said. "We could never repay him for what he's doing here."

Beaston came to tombstone restoration relatively late in life. After working as a mechanic, a nurse, and a barber, he clearly has a new passion.

With his 77th birthday approaching in November, Beaston admitted to a deeply personal interest in the condition of Snyder cemetery: someday, he said, it will be his resting place.

Between now and then, there's work to do.

"I want to be remembered that I made a difference," Beaston said, "that my community was better because I lived in it. And the biggest difference it can make is if someone will follow after. Hopefully, some will."

So far, nobody has volunteered to join Beaston in what will surely be his legacy.

He's still waiting, still hoping and, especially, still working on tombstones, to unveil their windows to the past.

*Melchiorre is a producer and writer based in the New York area.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or


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