HOPE — New burials have halted at Hope’s historical Morey Hill Cemetery while town leaders try to figure out who is buried and where. High-tech help might be on the way.

Already, it is feared the last burial, about eight years ago, might have intruded on or be uncomfortably close to old grave sites long forgotten and for which little or no record or visible trace remains.

A recent request for use of a gravesite purchased some time ago has now lent some urgency to the matter. Town officials are taking the first preliminary steps to figure out how to proceed so sites and the deceased can be identified and the cemetery can resume burials.

After years of painstaking work to identify grave sites by town sexton Beth Gindel, and at her urging, Hope is now exploring the kind of high-tech help that in recent years has made huge advances possible in archeology and anthropology, among other fields, helping scientists to locate everything from human remains to precious artifacts and identify ancient building sites, battlegrounds and perhaps significant religious venues.

Vandals are an ever-present danger for cemeteries and Morey Hill in Hope is no exception. Sexton Beth Gindel examines a big hole in a large headstone over the grave of a veteran of the War of 1812. Vandals or someone with sadly bad aim scored a direct hit with a shotgun slug, Gindel believes. Photo by Jack M. Foley

It is a somewhat unwieldy gadget called ground-penetrating radar that looks a bit like a combination baby carriage, minus the baby, and lawn mower with big wheels and bulky, box-shaped instruments, one at the handlebars the other suspended just above ground surface.

Pushed along by a technician, it sends radar pulses downward, where they bounce off anomalies such as voids in the ground, pockets of air, and shapes that might be objects or patterns that could be old pathways, fence lines or foundations of ancient structures. Or, long-buried headstones, coffins or wooden crucifixes.

The Hope Select Board at its Sept. 27 meeting gave a nod of approval to Gindel and her cemetery committee to explore bringing in a radar team to look beneath the ground among the scores of broken and intact headstones at Morey Hill. The rural, rock wall-surrounded cemetery is set amidst rolling, maple-flecked hills of blueberry barrens right off Morey Hill Road. It has been in use since around 1800 and is the oldest of Hope’s two cemeteries.

Hope Sexton Beth Gindel identified the grave of Betsey Hill and added a plaque: “Born in Concord, Mass.” and “Died in Hope.” The dates of her birth and death are yet undetermined. Photo by Jack M. Foley

“I’ve been wanting to do this from the beginning,” said Gindel, who assumed her position in 2019. She had been interested for many years before that in Morey Hill because many of her ancestors and her husband’s are interred in the graveyard. It was her investigation into her own genealogy that began in the 1990s that first sparked her interest in Money Hill and its long forgotten deceased.

But she cautioned that until a radar team conducts a thorough survey and interprets the data collected, there are “no guarantees they will be able to find anything.”

That was not the case recently in Gardiner, where a radar team from Topographix in Hudson, N.H., was key to the resurrection of the long moribund St. Ann Cemetery, according to the company website and information from the Maine Old Cemetery Association.

Gindel would very much like to see the same happen in Hope; it would be a far cry from her first sight of Morey Hill several decades ago.

Her first visit remains etched in her memory — particularly contrasted with how she and her team have been able to care for the grounds and stones.

“When I arrived, it looked like an overgrown hayfield, with trees growing up everywhere. It was a very, very sad place. But I lived in Warren, so I had no control.”

She knew there were a lot more people buried there than what was suggested by the number of existing headstones and markers.

In the intervening years, the town did undertake a substantial clean-up job on the cemetery, removing trees and brush and resetting some downed headstones. And at one point, the Maine Old Cemetery Association came to make records of old headstones, according to Gindel.

In 2006, Gindel moved to Hope and when in 2019 the town was looking for a new sexton to take over maintenance and record keeping of its two cemeteries, Gindel, who by that time had developed an intense interest in Morey Hill, got the job.

“I love history but I didn’t realize what I was undertaking when I took over,” said the 51-year-old real estate agent.

When she began poking into the earth with metal prods to find grave sites, she found lots of them, perhaps as many as two dozen. She marked each one with a gleaming white stake in the ground.

It was then that she learned to her dismay that the last burial, in 2013, seemed at best to be right up against several old sites — and at worst, in the same place.

That is when she recommended and the town put into effect the moratorium on new burials that has been in place ever since, she said.

This headstone base was invisible and buried two feet below the surface with clues that prompted Sexton Beth Gindel to dig. She and her team reset the base stone. The original headstone is missing and might have simply disintegrated over the years. Photo by Jack M. Foley

Recently, a couple that purchased a plot some time ago decided they wanted to erect headstones. When the woman and Gindel met at the cemetery, the woman was not absolutely sure where the plot was, although she had a vague idea, according to the sexton. When Gindel searched town records, she found paperwork for the sale of the plot, but it did not identify its precise location in the cemetery. Where the woman thought the plot was, is very near where Gindel has located long unmarked sites — perhaps originally only marked with a wooden cross that has long since rotted away.

After locating her first site a few years ago, Gindel continued to look for and discover more, often by locating small remnants of head or foot stones, or by following the rows of extant headstones to where the row seems to have ended for no particular reason, or by hitting something hard as she sent prods into the ground. Not that there are skeletal remains; none from so long ago are likely to remain, she said.

Recently, after mowing and cutting down a stand of brush in one corner of the cemetery shaded by branches from the neighboring land,  a half-dozen new sites were identified. They  include that of a child named George. He died of unknown cause on Jan. 13, 1850, at the age of four months and 13 days — the son of Sarah and Sylvanus Bowley. Gindel believes the whole family is interred in a row of mostly still-unmarked but finally discovered grave sites that today spout bright white stakes.

“It’s one big puzzle,” said Gindel. “Sometimes I work for days and days up here, and I don’t find anything. Then all of a sudden…”

Not that it is exactly what she was hired to do, either. What she and her committee and occasional volunteers are engaged in with their gravesite investigations and identifications, she said, “is way beyond what the job entails.”

It does not slow her in the least. In addition to probing the earth, she finds and resets headstones and sometimes just a base that might be hidden two feet down; fixes what vandals break, mows and clears brush and sets small new polished black stones with identifying information when a long lost grave site is identified. In addition, she keeps meticulous records.

To accomplish her work to find lost burial sites, Gindel pores though cemetery websites, uses the vast genealogical archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, examines town records and looks for old photographs that might show headstones that have vanished since the photo was taken.

She has compiled a binder that is about three inches thick with records of every known site in the cemetery, and she is always looking for more clues, more hints, more records.

“If anybody has old photos of the cemetery, I would love to have them,” she said, adding even if they are just random shots and not of any particular grave or headstone. Any one of those pictures could be valuable clue, she said.

In one case, an old photo did help resolve a mystery, that of a missing headstone of what appeared to have been a matched set. It was a father and son, Samuel and John Bartlett, buried side by side in the 1800s. One headstone appeared to have been broken off at the base and, unlike some others that had fallen over, this one had vanished.

But one day a family member doing research showed Gindel a photo and it clearly showed that as recently a few decades ago, that matching headstone of tall black slate was indeed in place. Where it went remains a mystery. In the meantime, the family has had a duplicate made and plans to install it this month.

Gindel concedes that what she spends a great deal of time doing and worrying about these days has come as a bit of a surprise in the bigger scheme of things.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be digging in graveyards,” she said.

She quickly added that what she and her team are doing is very important.  “Somebody has to care before what is salvageable disappears.”

On the back of the stone at the entrance to Morey Hill Cemetery are the names of 36 people who Hope town records indicated were buried in the graveyard but whose gravesites had long since disappeared. Hope Sexton Beth Gindel has found the gravesites for all but two. Photo by Jack M. Foley