Cemetery Preservation: A Growing Concern
Even before our website was live, we received many, many letters from readers who were concerned about cemeteries that have been abandoned, have fallen into disrepair, or are threatened by development. We set out to scour the Internet, and consult the experts, to bring you help and advice for saving threatened cemeteries.
Why Preserve Historic Cemeteries?
Cemeteries are repositories of precious historical, cultural and genealogical information. They often contain information that has never been recorded elsewhere. To the genealogical researcher, they offer important clues to family relationships among ancestors. To the historian, they are precious records of times past. To the student of culture, they are expressions of past customs, beliefs and values.
When a Cemetery is Lost, Our Shared History and Collective Heritage Are Lost With it.
How do cemeteries become endangered? Before the advent of municipal cemeteries that were maintained on a regular basis, cemeteries were often associated with churches, or were located on privately owned land. If an associated church has moved, or if privately owned land has changed hands, cemeteries may become vulnerable to the biggest threats to any historical property: the effects of time and nature, lack of maintenance, or encroaching development.
African American Cemeteries: A Special Concern
African American cemeteries can be especially problematic, because many are unmarked; their specific locations known only to local residents through oral history. Many African American cemeteries whose locations are known, may still contain unmarked burials.
In African American Cemeteries, Different Customs Mean a Different Appearance.
To further complicate matters, cultural differences in the burial customs of African American and Euro Americans may lead to the mistaken assumption that an African American cemetery is abandoned, which in many states opens the door to legally developing lands that contain African American burials.
It is important to recognize, and preserve, objects and plants that have cultural significance in African American cemeteries. Some cleanup and restoration efforts may actually do more harm than good, because they may obliterate such things as plants, stones, shells, personal and household items, and even pipes, that mark the locations of graves.
The Chicora Foundation's discussion of The Difference Between African American and Euro American Cemeteries is a must-read for anyone contemplating an effort to preserve and/or restore an African American cemetery.
This article is part of The Chicora Foundation's brochure "Grave Matters," which is available online, and in print.
So, You've Done Your Cultural Homework. Where Do You Go From Here?
If you have done your cultural homework, and you still feel that a particular African American cemetery is endangered, first and foremost, consult the local African American community. Those who will be affected by a decision or outcome are refered to as stakeholders. The local African American community members are the stakeholders of any decision or effort to preserve an African American cemetery. It is very important to meet and speak with the local African American community, and to involve members of the community in any decision making, or other efforts associated with the cemetery you wish to preserve.
Help, Advice and How-To's
You've consulted with the local community, and they wish to preserve and protect an endangered cemetery. Where do you turn for help and advice, to make sure that you do the right things, in the right way? The Saving Graves Learning Lab is a concise, yet comprehensive, collection of articles to guide you throughout the preservation process. Here you will find advice on topics as varied as getting started, determining cemetery ownership, identifying unmarked graves, finding help and support, and care and cleaning of gravestones and ironwork.
Recording Oral History: An Important Step in Preserving African American Cemeteries
Because many aspects of African American history and culture have not been recorded in history, it is important to seek out and record the oral histories that survive within the local community.
The Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University offers an excellent online discussion of the cultural significance of African American cemeteries, and offers some practical advice on where to turn for help with learning and recording the history of an African American cemetery.
Some Final Advice
In three words: keep the faith. Preserving a cemetery is an enormous undertaking, and you will meet with many challenges and obstacles. If you stick with it, the rewards are many. The greatest reward will be knowing that you have preserved a treasure of history that can never be replaced.
This article may be printed and freely shared for nonprofit purposes, provided that this notice and citation appear with the article:
This article was prepared for The USF Africana Heritage Project (www.africanaheritage.com) by Toni Carrier.
2004 "Cemetery Preservation: A Growing Concern." The USF Africana Heritage Project, http://www.africanaheritage.com
Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.