Friday, May 11, 2012

Discover America’s Hidden (Cemetery) Gems During National Preservation Month

 May is National Preservation Month and this year’s theme is Discover America’s Hidden Gems.  What a perfect time to explore our historic cemeteries, and to help find ways to preserve our unused, forgotten, and damaged cemeteries.

National Preservation Month began in 1971 to call attention to grassroots preservation efforts around the country.  In 2005, May was officially designated as National Preservation Month and is now observed throughout the United States.

Up-rooted Stones
Forgotten Cemetery
There are many cemeteries across this country (and the world,) in desperate need of preservation.  Cemetery preservation can include anything from documenting a cemetery, to gaining national or historic designations as landmarks or historical places, to resetting and repairing headstones, restoring buildings or mausoleums, mending fences, even notifying officials of the location of an abandoned cemetery, or contacting and gaining legal assistance in order to take back a cemetery that is being misused or destroyed.

Preserving a cemetery takes money, man-hours, an understanding of what needs to be done and the best way to accomplish these goals.  Most states offer free preservation workshops, and a cemetery preservation guide, usually available from the state’s historical preservation agency.  But even armed with this knowledge, a preservation or restoration group should still seek out a professional in the field for a consultation and/or assistance.

Loosing a Stone
Unattended Cemetery
Many of the cemeteries in need of some type of preservation are small, 10 acres or less.  These sites are usually privately owned, or owned by a small village or town that can no longer afford their upkeep or repairs.  This is where volunteers are the life-blood of preservation, but we must do it in the most acceptable and least damaging manner possible.

An attempt at Repair
Shattered name
There are varying levels of skills are needed to perform cemetery preservation.  Some preservation work may require attending a workshop and following a training manual if you’re, say, resetting a stone.  Others require trained professionals with experience to become involved.  And the hardest repairs and preservation methods call for professionals to be hired.

Set in concrete
Pieced together
Repairing historic grave markers properly is very difficult.  Most repairs are complicated and a professional is required.  This is not a time to skimp on the money needed or correct supplies required for the repairs.  Although the stones shown here have been ‘fixed’, they were not repaired in the correct manner and have compromised the original headstone.  Repairs made by using a material that is harder than the original gravestone will cause tension on the stone that can lead to new breaks and cracks.

Fallen wall
Broken fence
Cemetery fences, family plot dividers and mausoleum walls can all be found in need of repairs.  Again, it is best to locate an expert in order to maintain the original look and integrity of the site.  Historic preservation groups are great sources to help you in locating qualified assistance.

Human Skeletal Remains Act
If you know of a cemetery in need of preservation, contact your state’s historic preservation agency.  If you have discovered a cemetery that is being vandalized, excavated or destroyed, get in touch with your local Cemetery Department or Commission, or contact the Parks Department.  If all else fails, contact a state legislator, or the Office of Comptroller for guidance. The State of Illinois enacted a Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act (HSRPA) in 1989 to stop such desecration. Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act (20 ILCS 3440; 17 IAC 4170)   Check to see if your state has a similar law.

For more information on cemetery preservation, visit:
The Association for Gravestone Studies, (AGS)
Founded in 1977, AGS is an international organization that offers publications, conferences and workshops about the historical significance of grave markers.

National Preservation Institute, (NPI)
The NPI was founded in 1980 and offers education and professional training for those involved in the preservation, management and stewardship of cultural heritage.

The National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, (NCPTT)
The NCPTT applies science and technology to historic preservation through the areas of architecture, archeology, materials conservation, and landscape architecture.

Pioneer Cemetery
It is our responsibility, as citizens, historians, and genealogists, to assist in the preservation of cemeteries.  These ’Gateways to the Past’ provide us with amazing cultural resources, a wealth of historical assets, and valued public landscapes.  They are worth protecting and preserving for future generations!

~ Joy