Jim Davis’ mission is to resurrect old cemeteries and historic gravestones in Bucks County.
One of the great joys in Jim Davis’ life is rediscovering messages from the dearly departed. That is, those who had departed so long ago that their grave markers have lost inspirational messages due to ravages of the centuries. Jim is the self-described “Tidy Tombstones” man of Bucks County. His passion is to bring stones back to life, so to speak. When something really memorable emerges, he’s apt to call pal Sally Sondesky of the Bensalem Historical Society with unbridled enthusiasm. “Sally, you can’t believe what I just found!” he’ll exclaim, his voice pitched higher.
To me, cemeteries are quiet places for contemplation where you can sense the passage of time in the eulogies people leave behind in marble and granite. I had assumed fallen and cracked tombstones were the product of vandals. Not necessarily, said Jim when I rendezvoused with him, Sally and her cousin Peggy Thullen at an ancient family cemetery near Jim’s home in the Glen Ashton section of Bensalem. In most cases vandalism’s not to blame. It’s weather. Cyclical rain, ice and thawing can move headstones inch by inch until they topple over or crack in half from sheathing. That’s where Jim comes in. His restorations have become a cottage industry. He’s found work throughout the region. Work on a single marker can take months and is astounding to behold when complete. Eternal messages reappear. Discoloration by algae wash away. The markers take on the pearly white appearance of how they must have looked at burials as much as 300 years ago.
Jim’s avocation got started thanks to his granddaughter Aubrey, a second-grader assigned to do a family ancestry project in school. The Davis clan got together to create a family tree to present to her class. The experience raised lots of questions however. So the family joined ancestry.com to give Aubrey a more detailed, permanent family tree. That knowledge was “eye-opening,” according to Jim. “We discovered where people from our past were buried and that led to us visiting the grave sites of those people not too far from our home. Visiting was very sobering. Not only did I want to know more about the person, but when I saw the condition of their 100-plus year-old grave sites and others, I knew I had to do something. So I started to research everything I could find about gravestones.”
He found what was needed in books, articles and information on the Internet. As he put it, “You can’t just grab your half-used bottle of Dawn and hit the cemetery with a bucket of water and a brush. They can damage the grave sites and lead to a stone’s demise.”
His first effort was to clean the headstone of his wife’s grandfather who died in 1952. Research indicated it would take 60-90 days after liberally spraying the marker with a gentle biocide to remove water stains. It worked so well that Jim was off to restore grave sites of other ancestors. People began to notice and asked if he could do the same for their ancestors. Thus Tidy Tombstones was born taking Jim to cemeteries in Bucks, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties.
After the chemical treatment, Jim carefully gives the front, back and sides a facelift with a soft brush, bringing out names and epitaphs while removing traces of lichen, mold and mildew in the engravings. “I talk to them every day,” he said of those buried. In the hours spent cleaning, repairing and resetting gravestones, he’ll carry on a metaphysical conversation with the deceased. In a sense, Jim’s become the cemetery ghost whisperer of Bucks. “I have gotten to know the person beneath the stone, probably a little about their history, may have gotten to know some of the family and all of that feeds into my relationship with the stone.”
The Tidy Tombstones man takes photographs periodically during the restoration process in order to see at a glance how things have proceeded. In the two years he’s been doing this, he’s proud of his accomplishments buffing up stones dating back centuries like those of Mary Johnson (1761), John Gibson (1760) and Mahlon and Charity Vansant Williamson (1848), parents of Isaiah V. Williamson who was one of the state’s most influential philanthropists.
It seems to me Jim and the Bucks County Genealogical Society should be joined at the hip. The Society with the help of about 41 volunteers for the past several years completed the task of digitally documenting 208 historic cemeteries in Bucks County. The “cemetery detectives”, as the society puts it, have collected exact locations, burial records and gravestone transcriptions. The society asks on its website, “Is there a genealogist anywhere who doesn’t love a good headstone?” adding, “Your ancestors are dying to be found.”
Jim Davis is out there doing just that.
Jim Davis can be reached via email at TidyTombstonesPA@gmail.com or by calling 215-378-8943. Information on the cemetery project of the Bucks County Genealogical Society can be found on the web at https://bucksgen.org/index.php/bucks-county-cemeteries, Also helpful is information at the Bensalem Historical Society (www.bensalemhistoricalsociety.com)