Smithtown resident and Long Island graveyard historian Rob von Bernewitz is leading a group of volunteers to clean up headstones at a small cemetery that dates back to the 1800s. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Herb Loper explained as he scrubbed lichens from a gravestone from the 1800s at Smithtown Landing Avenue Cemetery that such projects have to be handled with care.

“If you power-wash something like this, you’re going to ruin the detail,” Loper, 57, of Riverhead, said recently while pointing to some of the marble stone's engravings. “Future generations should be able to come here and say ‘This my great, great grandfather.’”

A group of volunteers has begun cleaning and repairing gravestones each week that have been damaged by factors including age and weather. The effort at the Smithtown cemetery is meant to preserve what they feel is an often-forgotten and unsung part of the town’s history.

Some gravestones have been broken, while others have blackened with mold and lichens, which are made of fungus and other bacteria that release acids that can damage the stones.

Restoration project

  • Smithtown Landing Avenue Cemetery has hundreds of gravestones in need of attention.
  • Generations of notable Smithtown families have been laid to rest there dating back to the 1800s.
  • Volunteers recently started weekly efforts to clean and fix gravestones.
  • The work could take up to a year.

The cemetery is on Landing Avenue next to Smithtown Landing Methodist Episcopal Church, but isn't affiliated with the place of worship.

Dating back to the 19th century, the small cemetery is the burial ground for members of several notable families in Smithtown, such as the town’s founding family — the Smiths — and the Darlings, who donated the property for the church to be built. 

The grounds also are where various sea captains and maritime officers were laid to rest during the 1800s — an example of the key role maritime activity played in daily life in Smithtown during that era, according to Dave Thompson. He is president of the Landing Cemetery Association, which cares for the cemetery grounds, and also has ancestors buried there.

Kimm Schmidt, president of Landing Ladies Auxiliary, which is working to repair the 190-year-old church, said that for small churches and organizations, repairing and fixing cemetery gravestones can be a challenge due to lack of laborers and money.

“There’s a lot of graves that are in sad shape, so to have someone interested and willing to volunteer time and money towards this is amazing, because you can’t do it with one person,” Schmidt said.

Rob von Bernewitz,  a historian of Long Island graveyards who grew up within walking distance from the cemetery, is leading the effort.

With between 300 to 400 gravestones that need cleaning and fixing, von Bernewitz, 65, now living in Coram, estimated it could take up to a year to finish the restoration work. 

He said some of the heavier gravestones need to be moved with special equipment and so it may be necessary to seek out grant funding or explore other funding alternatives.

Carole Palmer, 82, of Ronkonkoma, said recently as she watched the volunteers that their restoration of the gravestones was an honorable task.

Palmer said her late father, longtime Smithtown firefighter William Palmer, who died in 2000, is among her relatives who are buried in the cemetery. 

“It shows respect for those that have gone before us,” Palmer said of the project. “It’s a way to honor these people and it’s about time.”

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