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Maine Retiree Takes Cemetery Under Her Wing

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Cemeteries are struggling. Many can barely pay to have the lawn mowed, let alone care for gravestones. But in Maine, a 71-year-old retiree named Isla Estabrook has taken it upon herself to clean the grime off thousands of gravestones. What started as a small project to clean a cemetery where a friend was buried has turned into an obsession. Producer Patty Wight sends an audio postcard.


Around the country, many small town cemeteries are struggling with routine maintenance. It can be difficult just to get the lawn moved, let alone care for gravestones. Patty Wight has the story of one woman in Maine who has taken it upon herself to clean the grime off thousands of gravestones.

PATTY WIGHT: The South Buxton Cemetery in Bar Mills, Maine, feels well, cheery. It's the gravestones that do the trick. Gleaming white, they all look brand new. But take a closer look and many are cracked, crooked or completely tipped over. It's soon clear that many of these are old - hundreds of years old. But they've been scrubbed clean by 71-year-old Isla Estabrook.

(Soundbite of scraping)

WIGHT: Five to six hours a day, most days of the week, you can find Estabrook here, working quietly by herself.

Ms. ISLA ESTABROOK (Retiree, Maine): Most of these stones, you couldn't even read the inscriptions on when I started.

WIGHT: Today she's cleaning the cemetery's oldest section. It dates back almost 250 years in this former mill town. Tucked away in a corner, it feels dreary even on a bright, sunny day. Dark streaks rain down the gravestones, which are nearly covered with blotches of black and green lichen.

(Soundbite of scraping)

Ms. ESTABROOK: It's really not for the average old lady, I expect.

WIGHT: First Estabrook uses a putty knife to remove as much lichen as she can.

Ms. ESTABROOK: You can take a brush or whatever have you, something that won't injure the stone.

WIGHT: She says it's the black lichen that's most tricky.

Ms. ESTABROOK: It's not that thick, but it's tenacious, I'll tell you that.

WIGHT: Spry, tan and sturdy, Estabrook looks at least a decade younger than her 71 years. As she cleans, her body is in constant motion, bending, squatting and scrubbing.

Ms. ESTABROOK: See, I'm in pretty good shape, and this certainly has kept me in better shape, I'll tell you that.

(Soundbite of pouring liquid)

WIGHT: Once she's removed the lichen with a putty knife, Estabrook pours a bleach solution into a bucket.

(Soundbite of brushing)

WIGHT: She brushes it onto the stones to take off the remaining grime. It sounds easy, but it's a process she must repeat over and over and over again, taking off one layer at a time.

Ms. ESTABROOK: Whew, it takes hours and scrub, scrub, scrub.

WIGHT: Estabrook started doing this a little over a year ago. She first got the idea while working as a nurse. A coworker cleaned gravestones, and that planted the seed for Estabrook. But it was the death of her best friend two years ago that got her started. She cleaned the 100 or so gravestones in the cemetery where her friend was buried, then she moved here to the South Buxton Cemetery.

Ms. ESTABROOK: Because I have so many relatives buried in here - my great-great-grandparents, my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my mother - a lot of family in here.

WIGHT: Now, Estabrook says, it's an obsession. Since last fall, she's cleaned about 1,000 gravestones. She says cemeteries are relics that don't get the appreciation they deserve.

Ms. ESTABROOK: We're living here today because of these people who are lying here, and they deserve something.

(Soundbite of hose)

WIGHT: After a few coats of bleach solution, Estabrook uses a hose to rinse it off the stones. These stones still need some serious scrubbing, but Estabrook says she doesn't think too much about the work that lies ahead.

Ms. ESTABROOK: If I looked at this whole cemetery and said I'm going to clean it, I'd have said are you nuts? I mean, this is a big cemetery. But you know, you start. You start at the beginning, and then you keep going, and I intend to this whole thing if I last that long.

WIGHT: With at least 3,000 more gravestones to go, Estabrook says that will take at least three to four years.

For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight in Bar Mills, Maine.

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