As I head out the door, I said to my husband, “I’m going to the cemetery to do an interview.”
An irresistible joke but the living, breathing man I met at the River Philip cemetery on Route 321 does not take his work lightly.
That’s an unintended pun since Keith Elliott of Wallace restores headstones.
He’s working on eleven in this cemetery thanks to a grant from the W.B. Wells Heritage Foundation, created in 1985 to preserve burial grounds and cemeteries throughout Cumberland County.
“It’s great there’s a foundation for this restoration because it’s labour-intensive,” Keith explains. “I’ve been out here six or seven times because I can only do so much then I have to leave and come back. I’m taking a little bit off each time, especially with the white ones; I let the sun do some of the work.”
He doesn’t use bleach or acid or wire brushes; he picks off the moss with his fingers and washes the stones with soapy water and a soft brush.
According to Keith, every cemetery in Cumberland County needs hours of work done on many of its headstones.
“It’s nice to preserve the history and hopefully it’s meaningful to people. If people are tracing a family tree, they want to go and touch that stone. People are very tactile,” he says. “You see people walk up to a headstone and the first thing they do is put their hand on it.”
Keith says he doesn’t pay much attention to the names on the headstones surrounding him, although he does notice when someone died young.
“Usually it’s the epitaph that catches my attention but I’m paying more attention to the shapes and the artwork than the names.”
A creator of headstones himself, the traditional shapes of older grave markers are in sharp contrast to the natural slabs with rough edges that Keith uses from the Wallace quarry. As well, the headstones he’s designing are more personalized. While the most common symbol in this cemetery is a hand with a finger pointing to heave, Keith has carved such images as a lobster boat, tractor, eagle, guitar and blueberry vine.
“It’s something symbolic for the person [who has died]. Quite often, there’s a story there and it’s very personal.”
He has even recreated someone’s handwriting from a letter.
The same personal touch is seen in the address stones he designs.
Surprisingly, Keith doesn’t come from a long line of stone masons or stone carvers; he took up this work after returning to Wallace in 2004 with his bride-to-be (the couple have two young sons now). The quarry in Wallace was just starting up again and co-owner Stan Flynn asked Keith work for him.
“I had no experience but I did wood and stone carving for fun, and I had worked for a sign company in Halifax,” says Keith. “Stan showed me the pointers but most of it was self-taught, trial and error. Same with restoration,” he says, patting a half-cleaned white limestone headstone. “Research and understanding stone. They should last a long time but after a while, you can’t do much more. They are a natural product. You can’t fight nature but it’s nice to bring the headstones back.”
For more information, check out Keith's website: www.keithelliottstone.com