Martin Van Lith stepped gingerly around the four headstones in the Woodruff family burial plot -- an overgrown piece of Bellport woods -- and silently read the inscription on the grave marker of Esther Woodruff, 1775-1851.
"We have loved her on earth, May we meet her in Heaven."
Her husband's marker, however, lay broken in half. The Woodruff burial ground, and about 20 like it in Bellport and Brookhaven hamlet, have gone largely unmaintained for years. But thanks to the efforts of Van Lith and his group of local history buffs, Brookhaven Town will soon begin caring for some of the forgotten cemeteries.
Van Lith and the Fire Place History Club have for years pressured Brookhaven officials to comply with a state law that requires towns to maintain abandoned cemeteries. The ones in Bellport and Brookhaven hamlet mostly date from the 18th and 19th centuries; the number of graves in each range from two to 40, Van Lith said.
Prompted by the club's lawsuit, State Supreme Court Justice Melvyn Tanenbaum last year issued a decision requiring the town to begin maintaining nine of the burial grounds, deemed by the club as historically significant. Brookhaven is set to begin the work "within the next three weeks," said town spokesman Jack Krieger.
Van Lith said his group will assist with maintenance if the town provides access to the sites and mows lawns. Such tasks are too much for the club to undertake; many sites are overgrown with vegetation that makes them inaccessible by foot, he said.
"The average age of my group is 68," he said. "We can't do it."
Councilwoman Connie Kepert said the town will work with the club, and said the graves show the area has "enormous history that we take for granted." Town Historian Barbara Russell welcomes the help, but said the club should consult the Greenfield, Mass.-based Association for Gravestone Studies.
"It's not a matter of going to the stone and getting some glue," Russell said.
The Woodruff ground, located off South Country Road in Bellport, is one of about a dozen abandoned cemeteries in the area not slated to be refurbished. Van Lith said he would like to see the town maintain more cemeteries, but added "it's not like we're going to ask them to refurbish every cemetery in town."
Sharon Miller, whose home abuts the tiny Woodruff cemetery, said she would like to see the site maintained. The burial plot includes the final resting places of Matthew, Stephen and Esther Woodruff and Esther's husband, Stephen Robinson -- all of whom died between 1851 and 1875.
"We would be thrilled if the town did something with this," Miller said. "It gives respect and integrity."