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Expert: Damage to headstones at Old Burying Ground a result of ‘human activity’; police investigation continues

One of the damaged headstones at the Old Burying Ground in Southold. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

On April 7, Southold Town Police reported criminal mischief damage to 22 headstones at the Old Burying Ground in Southold and began an investigation.

Last week, Joel Snodgrass, a historic preservationist and founder of Steward Preservation Services in Huntington, toured the cemetery with police and church officials in an attempt to determine exactly how and when the damage occurred.

“The purpose of the meeting was to try to help the detective establish absolute facts that he could feel comfortable were dependable,” said Snodgrass. “My observations are based on the conditions I’m seeing.”

In the absence of witnesses or video surveillance, he said, it was impossible to state exactly when, where, how or by whom the stones were damaged.

“What I can tell you is that it appears overall that the stones we reviewed were damaged over time; they didn’t happen all at one time,” Snodgrass said. “Some had happened prior to the winter. Some were broken prior to November. It appears as though there are some more recent breaks, meaning between the middle of November — the last time I was there — and now.”

He concluded that the freshly broken stones were not caused by a weather event and that the stones lacked abrasion damage from, for example, a lawnmower or large rock.  

“When something impacts the surface of the stone you can normally tell because it does something to that fragile surface. It looked as though that was not the case in any of the stones we saw, so that tells me the force that caused them to be broken was something soft and spread out — hence, human activity, forces of a human pushing against a stone.”

Pinpointing an exact date when a stone was broken is, of course, impossible, he said, but added that there was a burial recently at the cemetery and no one recalled seeing some of the stones broken. 

“It’s not difficult to see whether it’s a more recent break versus an older break,” he said, and noted that he spotted about four that had the bright white marble color at the break which would indicate it was a recent occurrence.

“Those may not have happened last week, but it certainly wasn’t past last November,” he said.

While touring the cemetery, they counted 16 damaged stones — fewer than originally reported by police — and were able to immediately eliminate two as being the result of natural forces. One was a small granite marker that had cracked due to deterioration of materials; the other was a stone that was set in gravel that had weakened over time and given way.

“So that leaves about 14 with damage,” Snodgrass said. “It’s quite possible that some of the damage actually occurred two weeks ago, but this is looking more like a pattern of damage. Someone walks through and it’s a Friday night and they’ve had something to drink and they knock down a stone or two. Maybe they don’t come back for two months, and then do it again. It’s still an act of vandalism.”

Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said that the meeting with cemetery personnel and Snodgrass was “inconclusive” and that police are still actively investigating the damage.

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Katharine Schroeder
Katharine is a writer and photographer who has lived on the North Fork for nearly 40 years, except for three-plus years in Hong Kong a decade ago, working for the actor Jackie Chan. She lives in Cutchogue. Email Katharine