“Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.” – Gladstone.
Have you ever walked through a cemetery that did not hold some relative? Some people find them scary, even creepy. Personally, I enjoy them. I enjoy looking at the gravestones and monuments, seeing how they have changed through the years. I wonder about the people who were put to rest there – who they were, what they were like. Sometimes they give you clues, small bits of information put on the stones by loving family members. Other times they only have a name and a date.
Maybe liking graveyards makes me weird, but I find them to be peaceful places, often beautifully maintained. But what about the abandoned graveyards? Who is left to remember those interred beneath their soil? The question was brought to my attention by an article published in September 2013 about Medal of Honor winners buried in the abandoned Mount Moriah Cemetery near Philadelphia (http://www.military.com/daily-news/2013/09/25/historic-cemetery-reveals-medal-of-honor-winners.html), their grave markers hidden beneath heavy underbrush and weeds, forgotten.
I did some research, trying to find out how common these abandoned graveyards are, expecting it to be an occasional occurrence. I was stunned to find that there are estimated to be thousands of abandoned cemeteries in the United States alone. Although every state I checked has statutes to protect grave sites, even abandoned ones, I could find no statistics regarding them. In Florida, a legislative task force determined that some counties have 100 or more abandoned cemeteries and that more exist but are completely forgotten.
These abandoned cemeteries exist for a variety of reasons. Some were originally private graveyards on estates or farms. Others served populations that were not considered important by the people in charge at the time of the burials, including old cemeteries used by blacks or immigrant laborers. But some, like the 380 acre Mount Moriah Cemetery were large and heavily used into recent history. These were the victims of neglect as newer, more modern cemeteries increased in popularity and the economics of maintaining the old cemeteries as income decreased resulted in their abandonment. Even being placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places has not prevented Mount Moriah’s decline.
Some states, such as Connecticut, have passed laws allowing communities to take over abandoned cemeteries but they contain no requirement that funds are allocated to even clean them up, let alone restore them. In fact, it can be extremely difficult to determine who owns these areas. The city of Tucson, Arizona paid for an outside study of a nineteenth-century cemetery, known as the National Cemetery, in 2005, prior to building a new Joint Courts Complex. They were surprised to find how little documentation existed – they could determine who used it and when but were unable to find either a map of the exact area of military or non-military burials or any comprehensive record of the actual burials.
It seems the only way these abandoned cemeteries are restored in any way is if some local group takes an interest in them, as happened with the Mount Moriah Cemetery. Sometimes this comes in the form of a Historical Society, as when the Prentiss County Genealogical & Historical Society took an interest in the “Campground Cemetery” in Prentiss County, Mississippi (http://www.wtva.com/news/local/story/Once-abandoned-cemetery-offers-historical/IxycMgss5E26EgHl2LCY9A.cspx). Other times, someone local to the area raises questions about the cemetery and persuades the town to get involved. This happened with both the Sunset Memorial Cemetery in Jacksonville, Florida (http://members.jacksonville.com/news/metro/2010-08-10/story/group-fights-recognition-veterans-resting-abandoned-northwest) and the East Hills Cemetery in North Hempstead, Long Island (http://www.newsday.com/long-island/nassau/cleanup-for-forgotten-east-hills-cemetery-1.3858575). The North Carolina Cemeteries Survey (http://www.archaeology.ncdcr.gov/ncarch/reporting/cemetery.htm), which is attempting to record data related to old cemeteries, was the outgrowth of an Abandoned Cemeteries Study conducted between 1978 and 1981.
There are attempts to either clean up these old cemeteries or determine who is buried in them and move the inhabitants to newer, maintained cemeteries, but they are sporadic at best. I find it very sad that these people, once loved dearly, now lie forgotten by everyone. If Gladstone was correct in his assessment, what does our treatment of these old grave sites say about our current society?
I am a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and poetry. If you are interested in learning more about me or my work, check out my website at http://www.leomaretan.com.