Gravestone warriors
Members of several community groups in Sayville volunteered last Saturday to clean up the gravestones and gravesites of veterans at St. Ann’s Cemetery.

Courtesy photo by Suzanne Piard

Gravestone warriors

Story By: RANDALL WASZYNSKI
5/16/2019


SAYVILLE—Cleaning the gravestones of veterans requires some D/2 cleaner and plenty of elbow grease, but it is a service that Sayville community groups embrace. Last Saturday, they spent the morning attending to the stone markers and the gravesites at St. Ann’s Cemetery.

“You look around, and a lot of the gravestones have things growing on them,” said Bob Person, a member of the Greater Sayville Civic Association. “They have really sacrificed for our community, so this is a small little sacrifice for us to give back and show respect.

“A lot of people here served their country so that our community can grow and flourish. This is about respect and giving back to them.”

Nearly 500 gravestones of veterans between St. Ann’s Cemetery and Union Cemetery were identified with silver emblems by the Smith-Wever American Legion Post 651. The American Legion, accompanied by the Greater Sayville Civic Association, Rotary Club of Sayville, Sayville Historical Society, Kiwanis Club, Lt. Michael Murphy Division U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps and other community groups, took part in a cleanup at the cemetery.

“It’s bringing back people from all the different organizations back to working together, back to the way the town used to be,” said Bill Leigh-Manuell, a lifelong West Sayville resident and U.S. Army veteran.

Leigh-Manuell, who has served 50 years in the West Sayville Fire Department and is also a member of the American Legion and the historical society, said that the various organizations were often involved in group projects years ago.

“We’re bringing everybody back to a common core,” he said. “We’re honoring our veterans, which I think is good.”

Organizers from the Sayville Civic Association asked those attending to bring gloves, water jugs, paint-stirring sticks and brushes. A few members of the civic piloted the restoration of one stone with before-and-after photos to show the difference of reapplying the cleaner once or twice over a multi-week span.

“We’re looking forward to helping out and showing these veterans the respect they deserve by doing a token act of cleaning the gravestones,” said Bob Draffin, president-elect of the Sayville Rotary Club. “It’s really just good old-fashioned elbow grease that is going to get things done here today.”

Draffin said that D/2 cleaner is the most environmentally safe product for the job — not harming the stone itself or the surrounding grass.

Lt. Gary Vertichio, the commanding officer of the Lt. Michael Murphy Sea Cadets, commented upon the timeliness of the event for his organization’s members.

“Around Memorial Day, this type of project is something that is almost tailor-made for us because it teaches the cadets respect and honor,” Vertichio said. 

The project was inspired by Andrew Lumish, also known as the Good Cemeterian. Lumish, who grew up in Sayville and now lives in Tampa, Fla., has made it his life goal to restore gravestones and has cultivated quite a following. Additionally, many communities around the nation have translated Lumish’s strides into their community.

Lumish would research historical excerpts about whose gravestones he was cleaning and write informational features to further honor each veteran. A member of the Sayville Civic Association, James Bertsch, has begun to replicate that type of additional service.

One gravetstone in particular that Bertsch researched was Lt. Cmdr. Waldron Post, who served in World War II.

“The point is that we have all this information about [Post],” Bertsch said. “I cleaned his stone. I took care of his memory. That is my responsibility. That became a vehicle to get people to understand.”

Volunteers John and CarolAnn St. Lawrence have spent thousands of hours amassing the historical records of over 400 veterans, whose resting places are located in both St. Ann’s and Union cemeteries. Bertsch said that all are invited to see the couple receive proclamations for their efforts from all levels of government at 7 p.m. on June 11 at the American Legion Smith-Wever Post, located at 23 Foster Avenue, Sayville.