"Something struck me about the fact that the markers were in terrible condition, and it made me really angry that no one was able to care for them," Andrew Lumish tells PEOPLE
Andrew Lumish of Land O’ Lakes, Florida, spends most of his waking hours scrubbing down the tarnished and moss-covered tombstones in historic cemeteries around Tampa, exposing the essential information of a life story just waiting to be rediscovered.
“If you restore the monuments, you can bring that person back to life,” Lumish, 47, who owns a specialty cleaning company, tells PEOPLE. “I’m a small business owner, but this has taken over my life.”
During the month of February, he’ll be telling the stories of African-American veterans during Black History Month.
“We will be sharing the restoration process and the stories of two African-American veterans per week to celebrate their service and sacrifice to our country,” Lumish says.
The catalyst for his work came in 2011, when he was taking photographs at a historic cemetery and was surrounded by the decaying stones bearing the epithets of those who died in conflicts beginning around the Civil War.
“Something struck me about the fact that the markers were in terrible condition, and it made me really angry that no one was able to care for them,” Lumish says. “So, I trained myself on restoration techniques that are used at Arlington cemetery and on Sundays, instead of watching football, I would be out restoring.”
At first, he did Google searches to uncover the stories behind the markers. He eventually delved into different genealogical websites, old newspaper articles and family vaults to unlock the deeper tales.
“I decided I wanted to know everything because I want to tell their life stories accurately,” Lumish says. “We tell a factual story that is simply told. But the stories really touch people.”
Although most of his work involves veterans, he also explores the lives of others buried in cemeteries including Oaklawn, Woodlawn and Rest Haven, the African-American cemetery.
They tell the stories of a noble deputy and his less than noble brother, a teen girl who died from suicide, an 18-year-old whose siblings died in childhood and left his parents childless after being killed by Germans in 1918, and an interracial couple who eventually were buried together.
As Lumish cleaned the stones and learned the facts about those buried under them, he posted it all on his Facebook page. His more than 75,000 followers monitor those stories behind the restorations.
“Who doesn’t love a good ‘before and after,’ whatever the subject and veteran’s gravestones are often the subject,” writes one of his Facebook followers, Susan Polacek. “Professional level photography, smart narrative and detailed genealogy bring together an entertaining read for any history buff. A true labor of love, often poignant, always appreciated.”
One story revolves about an Italian-American young man named Joe Lazzara, who was killed by a roadside bomb in 1942 in Italy during World War II. The night before, he had dinner with his father’s sister – the last member of the family to see him alive.
“It was a devastating time for our family. There was always a void left by my Uncle Joe. He was never married, so there were no children to carry on,” Denise Provenzano, 60, of Tampa says. “What Lumish did was such a great opportunity for my uncle to be honored because he has no one to honor him. Andrew brought him to life.”
The man known as The Good Cemetarian has restored more than 800 tombstones to date since he began his quest about seven years ago. Lumish trained himself to clean the limestone, the sandstone and the granite, to bring the markers back to their prior glory when these people passed away, often in service to their country.
Jen Armbruster, 33, of Wesley Chapel, Florida, was touched by Lumish’s work and wanted to help tell the stories behind the tombstones.
“I found him on Facebook,” says Armbruster. “My daughter’s father is a veteran and has a Purple Heart, so it was something I wanted to become involved in. I felt the stories were so important and connects you to that person.”
Armbruster contacted Lumish, telling him that she was an artist who could paint a story in words. It has become one of the most popular features of the page.
“What always strikes me is how little difference there is in our lives are now compared to those who lived in the past. People haven’t changed much, they are still faced with the same things,” Armbruster says. “And these stories connect us to them. It’s a footprint and everyone has a footprint.”
Provenzano says the stories also bind the families closer.
“Andrew has such a respect for this hobby and tells each story with honor. He gets close to the people who are still here and does the research to tell the story truthfully,” Provenzano says. “This fills in the pieces and it is not only a wonderful tribute to my uncle, but it’s a wonderful tribute to what Andrew and what he does.”
As for Lumish, he says simply that he hopes what he does gives families some closure.
“It tells them that what their child, mother, father or grandparents did and stood for meant something,” Lumish says.