Irma Carper-Miller spends a lot of time with dead people. That’s because the East Haddam woman’s been taking pictures of gravestones for 35 years as part of her association with various gravestone and research groups.
Her fascination with cemeteries and stones started when Carper-Miller was a young girl. Her dad used to take the family to Old Cove Cemetery in East Haddam to look at the various graves and headstones.
She visits cemeteries regularly, takes pictures of specific gravestones and looks up the genealogy of the people buried beneath them. She puts these pictures and information up on www.findagrave.com.
“I got interested in the genealogy part of it, and the history part of it,” Carper-Miller said.
One of the historical facts that intrigues her is that all gravestones are situated so that they face the east.
“When the sun rises the soul rises with the sun,” Carper-Miller explained.
Findagrave.com started out as a way for people to find out where famous people were buried. But so many names got added to it over the years that now the site lists the famous and nonfamous alike. People can also request help through the site to find a grave. They can send an email with the person’s name and burial information and someone from findagrave.com, someone like Carper-Miller, goes out to find the stone.
Unfortunately, sometimes people request information on people who died and were buried prior to 1700, and finding those graves is usually not possible, Carper-Miller said. There were no stonecutters during those early settler years, she explained, and when people died they were often buried with simple field stone markers or no marker at all.
In fact, she said, back in Colonial times people were often buried without a coffin, and they were laid to rest only about four feet underground, explained Carper-Miller. Even later, when headstones started being used to mark graves, the base of the stones often were not buried far enough below ground and would fall over with time.
Many early stones have been lost as the grass has grown up around them, Carper-Miller said. She searches for them by using a metal prong that can be inserted four to six inches into the ground. Even if the top part of the stone is gone the part that was under the earth could still be there, she said.
One of the biggest cemeteries containing Colonial-era gravestones in the country, Carper-Miller said, is Greenfield Hill Cemetery in Fairfield. There Carper-Miller will find, “the largest amount of revolutionary patriots in the entire United States.”
Besides Findagrave.com there are many groups Carper-Miller is part of and that take her into cemeteries. She also helps the Daughters of the American Revolution seek out early-American graves. She researches the genealogy of prospective members by looking for ancestors who fought in the American Revolution.
She also takes part in a week-long conference once a year sponsored by the Association of Gravestone Studies. This year’s conference is June 14 -19 at Colby College in Waterville, Maine and costs $500.
“The conference is comprised of classes on gravestone preservation by mending, up righting, cleaning” stones, Carper-Miller said.
Participants also visit cemeteries during the week of activities
“It’s fun,” Carper-Miller said. “You get together with all these other people just like yourself.”
Her work has taught her the importance of maintaining cemeteries. Many of the stones in older cemeteries have been damaged over the years. Brownstone gravestones in particular are susceptible to absorbing water and can slowly crumble away. White marble is crystallized from acid rain and smoothes out, becoming impossible to read, Carper-Miller said. Granite, she added, is the best stone to use over graves and the deeper an inscription is made into the stone the better. Many stones are covered with lichen (a type of mossy-looking substance), which has to be brushed away.
People are also one of the causes of gravestone destruction, either because of a lack of knowledge or through vandalism, she said.
Carper-Miller finds that the best time to go out and take pictures of gravestones is when it’s sunny, between about 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Winter is the best time of year because there are no leaves, so no shadows are cast on the stones. Carper-Miller trims the grass around the stone and cleans it with a soft brush and water. To improve the lighting to read stones where the lettering has worn away, Carper-Miller brings a long, narrow mirror with her and uses it to reflect sunlight onto the stones.
For some interesting reading on gravestones Carper-Miller suggests these books: “Graven Images,” by Allen Ludwig, “Memorials for Children of Change,” by Dickran and Ann Tashjian, “The Colonial Burying Grounds of Eastern Connecticut,” by James A. Slater and “Gravestones of early New England and the Men Who Made Them,” by Harriette Merrifield Forbes.