Cemeteries just don’t get the respect that they deserve. People are often inclined to ask why it is that this occurs. Why is it that the final resting places of our ancestors are treated with such disrespect or are often ignored by society? None of them are good reasons and not a one justifies what is happening with our nation’s cemeteries but here are a few of them and a few counterpoints on how we can change that thinking:
ONE STONE AT A TIME
Cemeteries are a whole lot to take care of. Anything larger than a small family cemetery is probably going to have no less than fifty headstones and that can seem overwhelming. If the cemetery is one that has seen decades of neglect and a lot of headstones are damaged then the concept of repairing and restoring it can seem impossible.
As with any large project, you need to approach it from the viewpoint of tackling one thing at a time. If you were to take all of the projects around your house that you need to accomplish and write them down then the list would likely be far too much to take on at once. Add up the costs of those projects and it would likely be more than your bank account could handle. You couldn’t possibly accomplish every one of those tasks at once and you likely couldn’t afford them either.
Cemeteries are much the same. While the overall project of just getting a cemetery back to a status of needing the average day-to-day, year-to-year maintenance is a big one, every project – like every journey – begins with one step. Take it `one stone at a time’ and remember that the condition of the cemetery will only get worse if neglected longer.
Prioritize the things that need to be done and tackle what you can. Repairing and resetting headstones can be more involved while removing tree branches, brush, and garbage is not only cheaper and easier but will have a much bigger impact right away on the appearance of the cemetery.
Identify what headstones are in danger and make sure that those get your attention first. To help manage costs, research all of your options and do what you can afford. If you cannot afford to repair a headstone than simply make sure all of the pieces are collected and out of harms way (mowers). Just make sure to keep the headstone/pieces at the gravesite so you don’t lose track of the actual grave location.
No cemetery was ever cleaned up and restored overnight and any sizable cemetery will take months and even years to get `done’. Once completed, the cemetery will be back to needing only the basics: mowing, weeding, etc.
Many communities treat cemeteries like many homeowners treat their bathrooms. You know what I mean: you have to have them but you don’t want to spend too much time or effort taking care of them. Instead of looking at them as a community burden, why not look at them as a community asset?
Any community that is asked to name its assets would likely list something about `parks’ and `history’ among them. Cemeteries are both. They can be another community park; be it one that you can’t play in or bring pets; but one where you can enjoy a picnic, a leisurely walk, read a book, or watch nature. If you want to talk about history then I challenge you to show me a place that is more rich in local history than a cemetery. The people that came before us – the founders, the pioneers – are all buried there. If you want to talk about your community and its history then remember this: they are your history.
How would you feel about someone visiting your home when your bathroom – or another room – was a horrible mess? You might feel embarrassed. When people visit your community do you want them to see cemeteries that look like something out of a horror movie? Much like streets full of potholes, rusty and battered signage, boarded up and vacant buildings, dead or overgrown trees and plants; people notice cemeteries full of broken headstones and high weeds and thorns.
Let’s face it. Since cemeteries are largely misunderstood and ignored by society then elected officials seeking `points’ with their voters aren’t inclined to spend much time on them. There are bigger and more important issues to deal with and, where money is tight, spending it on cemeteries can be looked at as unnecessary or wasteful. Everyone uses roads – most on a daily basis – so when an elected official pledges to fix our roads we easily identify with the issue.
First of all, the most neglected cemeteries are those where people aren’t being buried anymore. Elected officials are more inclined to maintain cemeteries where funeral processions still travel and where loved ones still come to mourn.
Secondly, going back to my earlier point, if the cemetery was maintained regularly then it wouldn’t be as costly. What is more costly: to maintain an existing road every year or to wait twenty years and then fix what’s wrong? The same applied to cemeteries.
Odds are that most – if not all – of the people buried in any given cemetery mean nothing to you. They aren’t related to you – even distantly. While this is true, everyone one buried in that cemetery was a person. They were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, and friends. They were farmers, steelworkers, lawyers, and some were unemployed. They were white, black, and every color that exists in this world. They were no more or less important than you or I. At some point we all die and we will all end up at rest somewhere somehow. If they were your relatives how would you want their final resting place to be?
“But no one that knew them is still living.”
Eventually we all die. And, eventually, everyone that ever knew us will be dead also. All that this means is that the person buried there won’t be having their grave visited by people that knew them personally. Think about your own family. Have you seen pictures or heard stories about family members that you have never met? Do you feel a connection of any kind to those people? Perhaps you look like them or were named after them. Regardless, you are here because of them. The length of the chain doesn’t matter because the links on both ends are still always connected.
“If their family doesn’t care about their grave then why should we?”
This is an assumption made by many people that just isn’t always true. There are graves of people in my family that I care about but have never been to or even found. Some are too far away for me to visit. If your great-grandparents moved across the country a hundred years ago, how easy would it be for you to visit or maintain the graves of those relatives they left back in the cemeteries? Many people don’t know where their relatives are buried and many others don’t have the ability to care for their graves due to the distance. To presume that a neglected grave is no longer important to a family is incorrect. Ask yourself this: how often do you visit and care for ALL of your ancestors’ graves? Given our `mobile society’ those who live in the community must take responsibility for maintaining the cemeteries in that community.
“The bodies are turned to dust by now. There isn’t even a body there anymore.”
Not necessarily true. When the question was recently put to several area funeral homes, they all indicated that graves as old as 150 years would still have skulls and long-bones – at the very least. The rate at which a body decays depends on a number of factors (moisture, climate, animal and insect activity, the coffin (if any), the vault (if any), soil conditions, etc.). Remember that today we are still finding human remains that are many hundreds and even thousands of years old. While it is certainly possible that a body might be mostly or completely decayed, it is more likely that something identifiable is still buried there. For anyone who has had a loved one cremated: are those ashes any less important than a full corpse in a coffin?