What types of threats face our historic cemeteries?
Historic cemeteries are irreplaceable landscapes. Many of the historic cemeteries in our state have been neglected for decades. Some are more endangered than others. For every known rural burial ground, there are at least five that have been forgotten from our collective consciousness. The plight of both rural and urban cemeteries can be attributed to such factors as abandonment, apathy, encroachment, environmental factors, vandalism and theft.
Perhaps the most influential factor is the change in the rituals associated with burying our dead. Not so long ago, it was the family, friends and members of the community that would perform the activities associated with death. From building the coffin to digging the grave, death was dealt with on a personal basis. The deceased were acknowledged long after they had passed from this earth through events such as Decoration Day and cleanup day, a time when family reunited to remember the past and honor their dead.
As the funeral industry developed, the role of the family changed from being all encompassing to becoming mere visitors at the final rites. Once the body is in the ground, many family members and friends will say their final good-byes, only to return when it is time to bury another loved one. As we moved away from a personal role in the care of our deceased loved ones, hired personnel have been in charge of cleaning cemeteries. Instead of the individual caring for the family plot with the use of hand tools and manual labor; weed trimmers, insecticides and lawnmowers have taken their place. These modern machines and chemicals have caused stone damage and the removal of footstones and fencing, all in the name of saving time.
Technological advancements have left rural cemeteries in dire straits. Improved transportation and changes in economic pursuits have accelerated the decline and loss of many burial grounds from our small communities. Today, with the transient nature of Americans and the lack of economic opportunities for the young in rural areas, many have moved far away from their home. With no one left to look after the resting places of the dead, nature has reclaimed her ground or farmers and developers have decided that the land is better suited for the living.
Pollution has led to the deterioration of many monuments and markers in our urban cemeteries causing stones to blacken and decay. In an effort to erase the effects of time and pollution, some well-meaning people used improper cleaning techniques, such as the use of bleach to whiten the marble markers, which in turn will hasten the decline of the stone.
The living have also seen the economic advantage of stealing and selling for profit decorative features found in early burial grounds. Some of the living, especially young people, have found cemeteries interesting targets for vandalism.
Before we lose any more of these valuable historic documents from our memory, we must do what we can to preserve our historic burial grounds. From creating a plan of action to implementation, it will take the effort of local citizens to save our cemeteries. Beyond individual involvement, local, regional and state cemetery preservation societies are needed to seek a broader base of support for their efforts.