Victor Cuno Stempel, born in 1844, was a wealthy Missouri farmer and prominent citizen who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. At that time, Missouri was a border state and had dual (and dueling) Confederate and Union governments.
By the end of the war, more than 110,000 Missouri residents had served in the Union Army and more than 30,000 in the Confederate Army.
Mr. Stempel married, had three children and in 1901, moved to Florida, where he worked as a photographer. He passed away 20 years later at the age of 77.
His tombstone is one of over 1,500 cleaned and restored by Andrew Lumish, also known as “The Good Cemetarian.” The restoration of Stempel’s headstone took more than a month as moss, dirt and other material had become embedded in the letters and numbers.
Lumish, who lives in the Tampa Bay area, spends his one day off a week cleaning and restoring gravestones, especially for veterans. After researching proper techniques and appropriate products, he began the painstaking work of restoration. He and his partner, Jen Armbruster, also make it a point to research and share as much of each individual’s story as they can.
In a piece published by Reader’s Digest in 2017, Lumish says that as he and Jen look through genealogy sites to find details about the lives of the people who lie buried beneath those headstones, those stories can get juicy.
“Some of these guys, who some consider heroes, would leave their wife for another woman, and leave six kids,” says Lumish. “It’s a war hero who won a medal of honor for serving in the Civil War and was thrown in jail for not paying child support. … It’s like Real Housewives of 1895.”
Lumish began his passion project five years ago when, as an amateur photographer visiting local cemeteries, he noticed that many older headstones had been blackened by age and environment and that many were illegible. It made him “kind of mad,” he said, and so began The Good Cemeterian.
He starts by asking permission of a descendent or, if he cannot find a family member, cemetery staff. Then he brings all of his own supplies and gets to work. In an eight-hour day, he can begin the first phase of cleaning on about five monuments.
His vision is catching on, with hundreds of “Good Cemeterians” beginning their own restoration projects around the country. He has started a nonprofit organization called “The Good Cemeterian Historical Preservation Project” and is raising money for Gold Star families and veterans suffering from PTSD.
The pictures he posts of the before and after headstones are amazing. Some restorations take months — one current project is just concluding after 11 months of painstaking work. Seeing beautiful white marble honoring someone’s loved one, now exposed after decades of disrepair, is very moving.
As Lumish cleans the headstones, he posts stories and pictures on social media. You can follow him on Twitter @GoodCemetarian1, on Instagram and Facebook as the TheGoodCemeterian.
In a world where much of the news is distressing and depressing, this story is refreshingly hopeful. Like Mr. Roger’s mother advised, “Just look for the helpers.” Andrew Lumish is one of those helpers.
Holly Richardson, a regular Salt Lake Tribune contributor, is grateful for happy stories.