Union City woman works to clean, preserve the history of gravestones at Riverside Cemetery

Riverside Cemetery, Union City.
Posted at 3:37 PM, Oct 01, 2020
and last updated 2021-01-14 20:12:22-05

UNION CITY, Mich. — Cemeteries in west Michigan are full of history, and one woman in Union City is dedicating her time to preserving it.

There's over six thousand headstones at Riverside Cemetery in Union City, and Bobbie Mathis said she and other volunteers have already cleaned close to two thousand of them in the last four years.

Mathis used to spend some of her time at the cemetery, running.

"When you get to running around the cemetery, you can kind of take it in, and you kind of get to notice where things are at by lapping so many times around," said the President of the Union City Society for Historic Preservation and the Founder of Saving Graves Bobbie Mathis.

One day, on her usual run, she noticed some of the stones had been vandalized and wanted to do her part to fix them.

"Everything kind of collided with the vandalism. I said ‘Well now I feel like something needs to be done'," said Mathis.

Now instead of just passing through, she spends her time at strangers grave sites, cleaning them.

"You know you get out here and you can’t even see what some of these say. They’ve been lost to history for years, hundreds of years, and the cleaning has just made all of the difference in the world," said Mathis.

Mathis isn't the only one to go out and clean them. She started a group back in 2017 called 'Saving Graves', and other local volunteers have joined in to help.

"You get caught up in it, I guess. You make such a dramatic difference. That cleaning makes such a dramatic difference on an unreadable stone, then all of a sudden, you have this history," said a volunteer with Saving Graves Sandy Pensari.

In addition to cleaning the stones, Matthis is getting to know the people's backgrounds and will eventually publish a book detailing who they were.

"In every cemetery, everybody has a story. When you start digging into the stories, that’s when the people start coming alive. You get to know those individuals and what they accomplished or how hard of a worker they were or what they were about.," said Mathis.

Mathis said if you or someone you know is planning to clean a headstone, she said to make sure you first get permission from the cemetery to be there.

Then, she said to ensure you're educating yourself before you start cleaning to prevent accidentally damaging them even more.