By Gianna Volpe
John Griffin is more than just the man who will lead the Southampton Historical Museum’s walking tour of the North Sea Burial Ground at 11 a.m. on Sunday, August 17—he’s a living part of the site’s history.
Mr. Griffin’s ancestors are in some of the centuries-old cemetery’s most notable graves. They include Joshua Edward Elliston Jr., who preserved 133 acres of land adjacent to the burial site in the name of wife, Emma Rose, which is now a Southampton Town park.
The woodcarver and his wife, the daughter of a whaling captain, are buried next to one another at the North Sea Burial Ground beneath gravestones crafted by J. Edward himself, something that makes the site’s restoration efforts all the more crucial for its personal guardian.
“He designed all of this,” Mr. Griffin said of his ancestor’s handiwork. “He carved it out of wood before it was ever made out of granite.”
Mr. Elliston also designed the gravestone of his father, Joshua, who Mr. Griffin said, was a farmer from Southampton Village who enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and served a full four years as a farrier during the Civil War.
“His grave is down in Southampton Cemetery,” said Mr. Griffin. “Uncle Ed designed that too, so you can go read about him and the regiment that he was in. There’s a link with all of us, my dear, and we’re fast leaving our history in the dust.”
That’s precisely what this North Sea Burial Ground tour guide has been working to avoid. Mr. Griffin, a veteran military helicopter pilot, was a key player in a 2009 stewardship agreement formed for the site’s restoration between Southampton Town and the historical museum.
“There’s a fund established at the museum to underwrite work here from private donations because even though the town owned the property, they were allotting no money for restoration,” he said. “They would come and mow it occasionally, but now we hope they will pay for the perimeter fencing and for training people to mow without scoring the stones, so you don’t cut and weaken them.” ?Mr. Griffin said this training is especially important as older graves are cut from delicate sandstone, which cannot be restored nearly as well as their marble or granite counterparts.
“If the sunlight is hitting it just right then you can make out the letters and the angel of death on the top, but that’s as far as you can go with these,” Mr. Griffin said of one of the site’s red sandstone tombstones, some of which bear the icon of a bodiless angel—appearing unimpressed—with wings attached directly to its head. “They delaminate, you see? They split and continue to split until they become hollow. The older stones in most of these cemeteries are sandstone because it was easier to work with…. that’s why you have to be really careful trimming around them.”
Mr. Griffin said the restoration of North Sea Burial Ground actually began four years before the stewardship agreement. In 2005, he said the town did a survey of its 10 historic burial grounds before students from the University of Pennsylvania came to the East End and mapped the sites—giving each grave a number.
“We’ve been working on it steadily ever since and are now down to the maintenance stage,” he said, adding retired Suffolk County Detective Dennis Delaney has been so effective in developing his restoration technique at North Sea Burial Ground that it has “become the prototype for how to restore historic burial grounds.”
Mr. Delaney is already involved in restoration efforts at other Southampton sites, some of which will take years before they are complete.
“The one in East Quogue is coming along and we’ll probably start on the Old South Burial Ground this summer,” Mr. Griffin told The Sag Harbor Express mid-June, adding Mr. Delaney was about to begin restoring the North End Graveyard and Burial Ground between North Sea Road and Windmill Lane. ?“This has become a project of great respect and pride…. It’s a big, big job that will probably take two him two years to do,” he said. “They really took great care in what they did at North Sea Burial Ground and were very careful not to damage anything. Dennis even found a way to cut and shape marble to fit where pieces were broken.” ?Mr. Griffin said there is a national movement to restore historic burial grounds.
As veteran Marines, both he and Mr. Delaney seem to fit the profile as advocates for such a movement.?“There is a Marine down in Cranberry, New Jersey, who recently restored 5,300 graves with two Eagle Scouts,” said Mr. Griffin. “It took between a six-and-seven-year period to accomplish the work at North Sea Burial Ground. Many of the footstones had been pulled up by guys that were mowing– we found almost 30 of them discarded in the bushes—but luckily they had initials matching the headstones, so we could pair them up. Dennis would pace off the number of paces and probe to maybe find the rest in the ground and stick it together…. The cleaning process was really educational because…. all the inscriptions were filled with mud and dirt…. now you can read everything on the stone, except some of them are so old and weathered that you can’t,” he said.
Though suppliers have thus far changed hands twice, Mr. Griffin said the team is in contact with the owners of a company that manufactures D/2, a heavy duty cleaning product developed for cleaning antique stone, vinyl and steel. He said D/2 has been used on the White House and Washington Monument.
“All these stones that are clean and upright—we are fortunate a very fine man came along on his own, learned how to do the repairs and basically carried on when we would have had to pay thousands of dollars to do what he did,” he said. “They paved the way for us—[the people in] these old cemeteries. They paved the way for us.”