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Preservation Of Arkansas's Historic Cemeteries

Why are historic cemeteries important?

Historic cemeteries are:

  • Outdoor history museums
  • Wildlife refuges
  • Art galleries
  • Research facilities
  • Botanical gardens
  • Places to contemplate life or
  • Picnic or
  • Exercise or
  • to remember those that have gone before

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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.

Yellville Cemetery
Yellville Cemetery

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.

Stark Cemetery
Stark Cemetery

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.

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How can I place an Arkansas cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places?

Jeffery Cemetery
Jeffery Cemetery

Cemeteries are not normally eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places as they serve primarily as a means of an individual's recognition of family history and as expressions of collective religious and/or ethnic identities. Because cemeteries may embody values beyond personal or family-specific emotions, the National Register criteria allow for listing of cemeteries under certain conditions. A cemetery is eligible if at least 51 percent of the markers are 50 years old or older and it derives its primary significance from one of the following criteria:

  • Contains graves of persons of transcendent importance (of great eminence in their field of endeavor or had a great impact upon the history of their community, state, or nation)
  • Or from its relative age in a particular geographic or cultural context (example: oldest cemetery associated with a town or community's original settlement period)
  • Arnold Cemetery
    Arnold Cemetery
  • Or from distinctive design features
  • Or from association with historic events.

Fill out the form you will need for the AHPP to determine if your cemetery is eligible for the National Register.

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What steps should I take to preserve a historic cemetery?

There are six steps to preserve a historic cemetery. Additional information is contained in the AHPP's cemetery preservation manual, "Grave Concerns."

1) Organize your efforts

  • Locate and obtain written permission from the owner. If the owner can not be found, petition the quorum court for permission to conduct work at the cemetery.
  • Conduct research on the site to see what is currently known about your cemetery.
  • Form a group of volunteers, a cemetery association or join forces with an established organization such as a historical society.
  • Define goals and create a plan of action.
  • Become familiar with the laws for historic cemeteries.
Little Rock National Cemetery
Little Rock National Cemetery

2) Document your historic cemetery through survey forms, photographs, and maps.

  • Perform a general survey that documents the overall site, recording location, site boundaries, major site features, and provides a historical overview.
  • Conduct an individual marker survey to record a detailed description of each site feature found in a historic cemetery.
  • A condition survey is a before-and after record that should be created whenever work is performed on a site feature, such as cleaning or repair.
  • A vegetation survey is important in identifying historic plantings that are part of the cemetery landscape.
  • Specialized surveys to determine property boundaries and locate lost markers should be carried out as needed. In the future, the records created during the survey process may be all that remains of a historic burial ground.
Oak Cemetery
Oak Cemetery

3) Conduct research to learn more about the history and importance of your cemetery.

  • Select a focus for research such as a person buried at the site, the cemetery itself or on a monument maker.
  • Look at primary resources, such as personal papers or public documents, to develop the story of your site.
  • Look at secondary resources, such as books or websites, to help place your cemetery in a historical context.
  • Compile the information and write an analysis.
  • Store materials in a conservationally sound area.
  • Develop a policy for use of information by public.
  • File information with appropriate organizations.

4) Clean and maintain your historic cemetery using the greatest care and proper tools, materials, and techniques.

  • If the site has been abandoned, an initial clean-up will be necessary. Take care not to remove or damage cemetery site features.
  • When cleaning markers and other site features of biological growths, dirt and debris, use water and a soft natural hair bristle brush. Never use household cleaners, abrasive tools or power washers to clean a marker.
  • Hire a conservator to repair cracked, chipped and broken monuments.
  • Perform regular maintenance using caution near gravemarkers and other site features.

5) Raise funds through one or more of the following methods.

  • Request donations.
  • Stage events, create products or offer services.
  • Apply for grant funds from private and public sources.
  • Seek government assistance.
  • Ask corporations for contributions.
  • Seek gifts, and establish endowments, legacies, and bequests.
St. Boniface Cemetery
St. Boniface Cemetery

6) Create awareness products and programs to insure that others understand the importance of the cemetery. Offer well-planned educational experiences and materials that take into account the irreplaceable landscape and relative's feelings. Many awareness activities can be used to generate funds for preservation projects.

  • Tours
  • Special events
  • Projects
  • Materials
  • Products

For information on ordering AHPP cemetery preservation information, click here.

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What resources does the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program offer for cemetery preservation?

Grove Cemetery
Grove Cemetery

The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program offers a number of services and materials to assist individuals and groups in the preservation of historic cemeteries. Most materials and services are either free or available for a small charge.

Links

Corrigan Cemetery
Corrigan Cemetery

Association for Gravestone Studies may be contacted: this group offers resources, a newsletter, workshops and other cemetery related items. A good source for books on cemeteries. You may contact them by writing: AGS, 278 Main Street, Suite 207, Greenfield, MA, 01301 or visiting their website at www.gravestonestudies.org.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation published a pamphlet titled Preservation of Historic Burial Grounds (Information Series No. 76, 1993) that might be of interest. Call their national headquarters at (202) 673-4296 or write NTHP at 1785 Massachusetts Ave., N. W., Washington, D.C., 20036 or visit their website at http://www.heritagepreservation.org/programs/SOS/sosmain.htm.

Mt. Holly Cemetery
Mt. Holly Cemetery

The National Register of Historic Places published Bulletin 41, Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places. The bulletin lists a number of resources, as well as related bulletins on the subject of burial grounds. This agency keeps a list of every cemetery listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Write: National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, P.O. Box 37127, Washington D. C. 20013-7127 or call (202) 343-9559 or visit http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/index.htm.

Save Outdoor Sculpture assists in preserving outdoor sculpture. You may write the SOS at 1730 K Street NW, Suite 566, Washington, DC, 20006; or call at (800) 422-4612 or visit their website at www.heritagepreservation.org.

Videos

Arkansas Haunted Historic Sites: Cemeteries

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