Cemetery Preservation Fight

On this page we bring you an article courtesy of the Hannibal Courier Post. It was originally printed Monday, August 15, 2005 and is reprinted here by permission.
 

Preservationists fight for old cemeteries 

By Brandon Larrabee 
Morris News Service 

EASTVILLE, Ga. -- He's been dead for more than a century, but they're still looking for Darius East.

For Don East and his son, Donnie, the search for Darius (Don's great-great-grandfather) is part of a quest for family history -- and the gravesites of some of their long dead ancestors. Sliding across the roads and fields in rural Oconee County, the pair spends time trying to preserve and repair the cemeteries where members of their family are buried.

It's an act of remembrance and respect for those who have come before them.

"A lot of people don't even know where their grandparents are buried, you know?" said Don East after giving a visitor a tour of two of the family's gravesites. "That's sad."

On a recent Saturday, the two men were in Eastville to clear a plot of earth left undisturbed for more than 130 years, ever since Salias East -- Darius' father -- was buried there in 1868.

Salias' grave is unusual for how well preserved it is. Cemeteries across the country are often abandoned by family members, endangered by the creep of cities and suburbs, or simply neglected because of a lack of attention and volunteerism.

Laws and government programs vary from one state to state. And little coordination exists on cemetery preservation issues, particularly on the national level, resulting in few, if any, reliable numbers on how many cemeteries are endangered, neglected or even destroyed.

The argument for preserving these cemeteries is not just a sentimental affection for ancestors, says Michael Trinkley, director of the Chicora Foundation, a South Carolina-based group devoted to protecting and restoring gravesites.

"As we destroy these cemeteries, as we allow them to collapse into ruin, we are losing more and more of our history," he warns.

 

A volunteer force

When it comes to cemetery preservation, the Easts are a fairly typical story, part of a hodgepodge coalition of genealogists, history buffs and others who come from various walks and stations of life.

That's because the task of keeping a watchful eye on the burial grounds of past generations falls largely to those who do it in their spare time, aside from the occasional worker in some state preservation offices.

"Cemetery preservation, first of all, is something that is being performed admirably, primarily by volunteers in this state," said Christine Neal, archaeology program coordinator for the Georgia Historic Preservation Division. "They're doing it out of the goodness of their heart in places that are important to them."

It was Don East's wife, having traced her roots back to 1415, who got him interested in charting his family history nearly 30 years ago. Eventually, he began bringing his children with him on some of his travels to the gravesites of the early residents -- and founders -- of Eastville.

On this muggy Saturday, the main focus was on replacing Salias' headstone, a simple and small slab of white marble gone for at least a quarter century.

"It's been on the ground long enough," Don said. "I'm going to put it back."

The gravesite was a tangled thicket of vegetation in a field of nearly knee-high grass. A few hundred yards in one direction a small road sliced through the relatively quiet stretch of houses and churches. Not too far the other way, down a dirt path, was the home belonging to the owners of the land where Salias' grave sits.

Don East said his father and grandfather used to visit the plot regularly, looking after it, cleaning it. Over the years, family outings like those have faded away: A casualty, the elder East believes, of the increasing pace of everyday life.

"That used to be an old tradition," East said. "People have gotten away from that. Guess they're just too busy."

Lately, the business of genealogy has begun to shift to Donnie, 36, who has more command of a computer and has begun to put the information the two have collected in a database. The hobby has also turned into a profitable enterprise for the younger East, who runs a company that specializes in tracking down court records.

But when he goes to do research for his family history, Donnie can't help but notice that he's alone in at least one respect.

"I never see anybody my age or younger doing this stuff," he said. "Most of these people are up in age, retired, or (have) nothing else to do."

His lonely pursuit illustrates the political dynamic of government funding for cemetery preservation, advocates say. Since so few people are committed to it, politicians devote few resources.

However, observers say public awareness of the problems surrounding cemetery preservation might be rising, but it's still far from a headline-grabbing issue that will win a massive infusion of government funding.

"There's certainly some degree of interest out there," said the Chicora Foundation's Trinkley. "Now in the context of, is this where the public wants to spend their money, I don't know."

One state that does have a few positions devoted to cemetery preservation -- having a single position is rare enough -- is Texas. There, Gerron Hite oversees a program that is trying to methodically catalog as many cemeteries as possible. That's not an easy task in a vast state that could have 50,000 of the sites.

By next month, the program hopes to have 46 of Texas' 254 counties surveyed.

"It's kind of a detective thing, and we'll never be through," he said.

Hite's position was created in 1997, years after he gave his first talk on cemetery preservation. That presentation made him something of a point man on the issue inside the Texas Historical Commission, and he was hit with a deluge of phone calls.

"We just constantly kept getting inquiries about cemetery preservation," he said.

But even in Texas, it is mostly the retiree or the history fan who ends up doing the heavy lifting on cemeteries, Hite said.

"It's the volunteers that are doing it, doing the work," he said.

Land and laws

Many of the cemeteries most in danger of either falling apart or being consumed by development are not marked by hundreds of headstones lying in neat rows, surrounded by landscaped gardens and curvy paths. Most of those that worry preservationists are the opposite: graves like Salias East's or family plots on long-ago farms or churchyards that no longer exist.

"Folks had less access to the bigger city cemeteries," said Neal of the Georgia Historic Preservation Division. "So we have these little cemeteries all over the state."

She noted that the state has been home to humans in one society or another for around 12,000 years.

"I've always said that's a lot of dead people," Neal said.

Where social norms and customs used to protect burial grounds in ancient communities, states have begun turning more and more to legislation in the last half-century or so to protect cemeteries. Today, there are at least two areas of the law that most preservationists tend to focus on: those that protect family access to gravesites, and those that protect the cemeteries themselves from development.

Access to the sites, at least for families, often isn't a difficult sell; for the most part, landowners are understanding of someone's wish to see the site of an ancestor's burial. Some will even let a hobbyist take a look.

"Most people are reasonable, and they don't mind a bit," said Ted Brooke, a retiree in Cumming, Ga., who tries to keep track of cemeteries and has written books both on preservation and about particular sites.

But some do cause problems, and the laws can vary from state to state. In Georgia, for example, families have an "implied easement" to view their ancestors. But that easement is found in case law -- written by the courts and not explicitly spelled out in the state's statutes.

That can cause a problem for people like the Easts, who are having trouble with a property owner several miles from Salias' site. The Easts want to take a look at a suspected burial site, but the owner has so far been obstinate.

"I'm going to talk to the sheriff's department," Don East said.

And that is where, for the most part, authority to handle cemetery law rests: with law enforcement authorities, often local, who are more familiar with rape and murder than historical preservation.

"We've even gotten calls from the GBI," Neal said, referring to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Even laws guarding the sanctity of graves from disturbance by developers and property owners can be ineffective; in South Carolina, Trinkley said, the bar for proving someone meant to destroy a cemetery is so high that it makes it difficult to prosecute.

Stronger enforcement of family rights wouldn't help people like Amy Hedrick, who tries to find cemeteries in Glynn County and nearby areas in southeast Georgia.

Hedrick said she often gets onto private property, such as areas owned by paper companies, as a one-time agreement. After that, though, the arrangement usually ends.

"They don't want you on them," she said. "And they definitely don't want you saying there's a cemetery out there."

 

'And cemeteries'

Another problem, advocates say, is the tendency of preservationists to focus on the more tangible signs of the past: historic buildings, significant streets, famous statues.

"I always say, remember those two words: 'And cemeteries,'" said Hite in Texas.

Oftentimes, Hite said, he's in a meeting of preservationists who are ticking off their priorities. It takes a comment from an audience member -- frequently Hite himself -- to prompt someone to include cemeteries on the list.

"It isn't an automatic thing," he said.

That can be frustrating for people like Trinkley, who sees more interest in worrying about the location of a cell-phone tower than in making sure that a cemetery is left undisturbed and in good shape.

The money tends to flow to projects like rehabilitating old houses, he said, but it's more difficult to find funding for initiatives like Chicora's mission.

"I think that's a tragic mistake on the part of preservationists at large," he said. "We tend to distinguish an old house from an old cemetery from an old Indian camp site."

Even so, protecting cemeteries requires more than a one-dimensional solution, Trinkley said. Focusing on cemeteries for one year, or cleaning them up for one day, isn't the answer.

"That may make us feel warm and fuzzy. But ultimately, it's not going to achieve any goals," he said.

States, in particular, need to focus on coming up with a long-term blueprint to save their cemeteries.

"I think it's going to take that sort of 10-year program where people decide this is really worth doing," he said.

Meanwhile, there's no doubt in most preservationists' mind of one thing: The threat isn't an idle one. Some cemeteries have been destroyed; and the creep of development still haunts people like Don East. "That's my main concern," he says, and his son notes that the house near Salias is a recent one.

The graves lost in the past are all but gone, likely as dead as their occupants. The focus now is on making sure that people like Salias East can rest in peace.

Copyright 2005 The Hannibal Courier-Post and Morris Digital Works.
Reprinted with permission.
 

 

 


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