Volunteers document, help preserve city’s 166 historical cemeteries

Posted 6/22/22


Cleaning up cemeteries might sound like the plot of a horror movie but to the nine members of the Warwick Historical Cemetery Commission, it’s a passion.

“Most …

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Volunteers document, help preserve city’s 166 historical cemeteries



Cleaning up cemeteries might sound like the plot of a horror movie but to the nine members of the Warwick Historical Cemetery Commission, it’s a passion.

“Most people never anticipated that where they were buried would be surrounded by houses and buildings. All they wanted was to be buried in a cute little cemetery,” said Pegee Malcolm, chair of both the Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Commission and the Warwick commission.

Malcolm began volunteering with the committee in 2004 and was named chair in 2006. She began cleaning up the cemeteries because to her it's just, “the right thing to do.”

The Warwick Historical Cemetery Commission was formed back in 1987 under the leadership of former Warwick Mayor Francis Flaherty. With the purpose of creating an inventory of the historic cemeteries within the city and working to formulate and develop plans in order to restore, rehabilitate, and maintain cemeteries.

Flaherty recalls when the Brayton Cemetery went out of business it started to get overgrown so he alongside a couple of other people began cleaning up the place. Brayton is the home of a number of Civil War veterans, doctors, lawyers, a judge who sat on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and a Rhode Island Congressman, William Brayton. 

“When they look good they add something to the character of the city,” said Flaherty. 

When there was an opening on the commission a little over a year ago Flaherty took the chance to join the commission he helped start over 33 years ago. According to Flaherty though he has some catching up to do compared to the other members of the group.

“I'm just the waterboy on the commission,” said Flaherty.

“There are 166 historical cemeteries in 153 locations (in Warwick).  As an example, there are 9 smaller historical cemeteries that have been moved to Brayton Cemetery in Apponaug,” said Malcolm.

The group has been able to receive a yearly legislative grant of $5,000 for Brayton Cemetery but all the grant truly covers is getting the cemetery mowed a couple of times a year and some structural repairs to the outside wall. The other 152 cemetery locations have no state and local funding. The group either pays out of pocket for repairs and supplies or uses donation money.

“90% is paid out of pocket,” said Malcolm.

Donations and out-of-pocket money helps with damages as well such as vandalism. Although laws such as the Rhode Island General Law 23-18-12 are in place people continue to damage cemeteries across the state.

“The last time was about a year ago in Brayton Cemetery. Prior to that, there was damage done at the George Sears Greene Cemetery. Several headstones were toppled. That, unfortunately, happens all over the state,” said Malcolm.

The group recently paid for damages caused to a wall of one of the cemeteries when it was hit by a car.

Following his retirement as Manager of the State Data Center, Rhode Island Department of Administration in 2011 Mark Brown joined the commission. His interest stemmed from a visit to the Methodist Protestant Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia where he located the graves of his four-times great grandparents, who were born in 1792 and 1799. Brown currently serves as the Vice-Chair of the Warwick Commission on Historic Cemeteries. For the past 11 years, he has been working on researching the land evidence records of each cemetery and so far has finished the records for 163 of the Warwick Historic cemeteries.

 But Brown hasn't stopped there.

“For the past year or so, I have been producing biographical sketches of every individual listed in all of Warwick’s 166 Historical Cemeteries. Some of these biographical sketches are very brief because of a lack of information available about an individual, while others present a more detailed look into their lives and the times in which they lived. To date, I have completed biographical sketches for every individual buried in 95 of Warwick’s historical  cemeteries. These consist primarily of the many family burial grounds located around the city. This work is not yet published and is still ongoing,” wrote Brown.

To Brown, the key to preserving these cemeteries is making sure that they are well documented and well known.

Brown is not the only one who believes cemeteries should be well documented. Dawn Lewis, although not an official member of the commission, was inspired by their work and the words of her grandfather to restore cemeteries to their former glory.

“My grandfather once said to me that when I grow up I will move and live somewhere else and when I do move to a new community that I should become part of the community not just see it as a place to live,” wrote Lewis.

Lewis took her grandfather's message to heart and started cleaning up the cemetery in her very own neighborhood, lot #61.

“On one of my dog walks I saw that the cemetery was overgrown and stones were broken. I felt a profound sense of sadness that the people who once worked the farm and lived where I live now are all but forgotten. I had decided that then and there that I would work weekends to clean up that cemetery,” said Lewis.

She began documenting the progress of restoring the cemetery by gathering before and after photos of the headstones. She also began using Ancestry DNA to find family trees and learn more about the individuals if she could. By the time they finished cleaning up the lot, Lewis had written two books; a before and after of the stonework and a getting to know the people.

“In my usual conversations with neighbors, I enthusiastically spoke of my intention and showed them the booklet. One by one, seven neighbors joined me in my project. Pegee also quickly joined in my project and brought along two others to assist,” said Lewis.

They worked endlessly to clean up the lot. The maintenance work included cleaning the weeds, and broken branches, and cutting the grass. Restoration work such as digging up sunken stones, repairing broken stones, building new bases, and locating stones that Mother Earth had claimed.

It is the work of the Warwick Historical Cemetery Commission and local neighborhood helpers like Lewis and her crew that the memories of those who have passed are kept alive. It's their passion for preserving the past that benefits the future of Warwick Historical Cemeteries.

cemetery, cemeteries


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