On the Tragedy of Decaying Cemeteries in America

Let me preface this with a prophecy: Half of those who will read this article will not do anything and will likely completely forget about what I’m writing the second they get to the end of this article.  I sincerely hope I’m proven wrong.

Today I visited the cemeteries of two of my ancestors: Forks Township UCC and Salem Church in Moore Township.  Here is what I saw (take today, 7/30/13):

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Leaning, broken, and toppled headstones at Salem Church cemetery; take note the flags.

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:Leaning, broken, or toppled headstones at Forks UCC.

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Yes, that’s a bush growing out of that grave…

These two pictures I took in the fall of this year at Salem Church.

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Notice the crooked headstones and the stumps of some of the headstones that have gone completely missing.

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All of that open space between my ancestor’s headstone (Andreas Schall) and the headstones to the rear, about one hundred yards back or so, used to be filled with other headstones. A few decades ago, a sink hole opened up and the headstones, along with all those interred, were thrown into the sink hole in an attempt to stabilize the ground.

These cemeteries hold our cherished ancestors.  They are veterans of the Revolution, of the War of 1812, of the Civil War.  They worked the ground, the built our communities from nothing.  They fought off raids from native tribes sought on the destruction of the Colonial settlers.  Every year they waged a war against the elements, against the land, against each other, so that we could live the life that we take for granted today.  They did all this for the benefit of their children, their grandchildren–ultimately, for us.

In return, they lie forgotten, condemned to have their names erased off the very headstones that guard their bones.  I have seen cuneiform tablets dating thousands of years old in better shape than these headstones aged merely a few hundred.   Part of the problem is the ground itself–the wooden coffins have decayed and rotted under the weight of the heavy slate placed over them.  As the slate sank to replace the space made by the rotted wood, the ground above the slate has slumped with it.  The result is a series of sink holes that swallow up the headstones as well as whatever rests near it.

But a lot of the problem rests with us, the descendents of these patriots, our grandparents.  We, those who share the same blood, let their final resting place fall into disarray and oblivion.  We rob our descendents of the same appreciation of their past–with every decrepit tombstone, with every fallen grave, all those who have been taken by the earth.  Are you OK with that?  Are you easily able to allow this to happen?  Would you prefer to see this:

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A white board with a list of names of all those whose headstones have been removed from the cemetery because they had rotted away and left the land unsafe.

Or this:

Nicholas Schall Sr. gravestone.  It has since been removed, though his burial place is still there with a chart detailing the site.

Nicholas Schall Sr. headstone.  Yes, this used to be the headstone that was removed; replaced by the white board with nothing but a list of names and dates–all cultural value stripped away.

We have a choice in front of us.  We can continue to do nothing, let our ancestors and all their artifacts slip into the soil along with all their uniqueness, all their identity.  Or we can do something.  I don’t know what that is exactly–maybe organize a cleanup effort, volunteer to help preserve the cemeteries of the fallen who need it.  Something must be done, or we may lose everything.  How much longer until more sink holes open and envelope a cemetery of your cherished ancestor?  Do we wait that long?

UPDATE 8/1/13:

The good people at The History Girl have informed me that they have written up a post about something similar in New Jersey.  Here’s a snippet from the article:

Since the last burial in 1915, the church and cemetery were not maintained. Members volunteering at the site say they have found reference to a cleanup in the 1930s, but aside from that, the cemetery and church became a forgotten and neglected relic of the past. In 2013, that all changed when Jeff Chiu, who has fourteen ancestors buried at the property, teamed up with the Friends of Old Swack Church, Metro Trails, GraveMatters, members of the Union Forge Heritage Association and Association for Gravestone Studies, and other unaffiliated volunteers. These volunteers have been working on weekends through March to remove brush, fallen trees, and discover and secure displaced gravestones.

Yes, this is awesome.  I would love to try to organize something like this here in Pennsylvania, especially in Northampton County, where so many cemeteries have been left to decay.   Kudos to The History Girl for pointing me in this direction.  There is hope yet!

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4 responses to “On the Tragedy of Decaying Cemeteries in America

  1. I’m proud to say that the Trustee of our township (Root Township, Adams Co., Indiana) has done a wonderful job of resetting the stones in our 3 township cemeteries. The stones have been cleaned and reset and our 3 cemeteries look wonderful! Our Trustee, Dan Bieberich, deserved a huge round of applause for taking steps to preserve our local cemeteries. Now take a short drive north to Allen Co., Indiana and it’s a totally different story. I’ve seen cemeteries there that make me want to cry. The caretakers of those cemeteries should hang their heads in shame!

  2. You might want to contact a local Boy Scout troop and see if they will take on a cemetery clean up project. Perhaps someone working to become an Eagle Scout would be interested for a project. Years ago, as a newspaper editor I wrote a story about an old cemetery in town and the deplorable condition it was in and a Scout troop led a clean-up and maintenance project. The irony of this story: About a decade later I discover my great-great-great-great grandfather was buried in that cemetery.

  3. Three years ago my son Chris Jones was trying to become an Eagle Scout. We were working on genealogy and he wanted to do something to help our deceased ancestors to be remembered. James Spencer from Col. Roderick Mattheson Camp 16 talked with him about cleaning a section in Oakmond Cemetery in Healdsburg, California. He led a team of 20 people cutting weeds and removing dead tree limbs. This project resulted in finding the lost grave of Chaplain James Millsaps, 35th IL Inf.
    This was such a rewarding project for him to do to honor the past but also to discover a fellow human being who was lost. We should all help preserve our past for the children of the future to know who we were and who they will become. Lets all help clean up our cemeteries, to preserve our heritage and pass it on to the new generation.
    Susan, a proud mother to being able to teach my child all about who they are and what they will become

  4. I remember almost 20 years ago we went to the cemetery to clean up our ancestors “memory stones” as we referred to them. We had my 5 year old nephews with us and they decided that cleaning up only our family’s stones wasn’t enough – the proceeded down the line and started cleaning all of the stones for everyone. They thought that all the stones needed to look beautiful again. If only everyone could think like that.

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