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Posted on: July 21, 2022

Historic West Cemetery Repair Project

Two men with tools are repairing a grave stone in cemetery

Contractors from Ludlow Memorial Company have been hard at work this summer cleaning, resetting, repairing, and assessing dozens of headstones, obelisks, and monuments at Amherst's historic West Cemetery in downtown Amherst. This project, funded by the Community Preservation Act Funds, managed by Town staff in the Planning Department, and recommended by the Historical Commission, focused on two areas of the West Cemetery - the African-Amherst burial section in the southeast corner of the Cemetery and the "1870's knoll" in the northern section of the Cemetery, closest to Triangle Street. The African-American section has featured prominently in recent Juneteenth celebrations and includes the final resting place for numerous African-American Civil War soldiers and residents of Amherst. The contractors, experts in cleaning and repairing historic monuments, have moved systematically through these 2 sections of the Cemetery to both clean the stones using a special treatment to remove biological growth and to reset and repair fallen and cracked stones using heavy equipment and mortar. 

This project builds on decades of work to improve and protect the historic integrity of West Cemetery. In 1998, West Cemetery was named one of Massachusetts’ “Ten Most Endangered Historic Resources.”  By 2000, the Historical Commission had succeeded in getting Amherst’s ancient burying ground listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The cemetery has suffered from years of environmental damage, uncontrolled foot traffic, vandalism, and inappropriate use. The Amherst Historical Commission and Planning Department have worked for years to protect and restore West Cemetery.  Projects completed to date include the 1999 West Cemetery Preservation Plan, restoration of the historic Gaylord and Burnett gates, the community history mural and over 500 headstones restored.  The Town's DPW Grounds and Maintenance Division manages the landscape of West Cemetery and has controlled vegetation which once grew rampant in the Cemetery. Today, West Cemetery is a crucial historic resource, green space, and tourist attraction in the heart of downtown Amherst. Visitors and residents alike are drawn here to visit the burial sites of famous people, to visit the Amherst History Mural, and to enjoy a nice walk. 

West Cemetery is the oldest burial ground in Amherst. In January 1730, a town meeting of the British colonial settlement of Hadley voted to grant its east district settlers “liberty for a burying place.” Set along the West Highway built in 1703, the burying ground became the West Cemetery. Amherst became a separate parish in 1759. West Cemetery was expanded in 1833, and again in 1870. It preserves some of the original unchanged landscape in downtown Amherst, recognizable to the early settlers who rest here alongside their fellow farmers, millworkers, servants, soldiers, and professors. Along the Cemetery’s eastern edge, members of Amherst’s longstanding African-American population are laid to rest, including venerable soldiers who served in the Civil War. Prominent Amherst residents buried in West Cemetery include Poet Emily Dickinson and educator William Smith Clark.

The Town Planning Department, DPW, and Historical Commission will continue to monitor and improve the West Cemetery. There are plans for additional headstone restoration work as well as the replacement of the now failing chain link fence along the eastern edge of the Cemetery. As always, residents are reminded to respect and help us protect the historic burial ground and to leave the cleaning and repair of headstones to the expert contractors hired by the Town. 

Questions? Contact Ben Breger, Town Planner at bregerb@amherstma.gov