Historical enthusiasts are often quite over-spoken about their passion for preservation, especially when it comes to books, landmarks, or homes. But what do we do when one of our richest connections to the past, the places where our ancestors lie, go unmaintained? What happens when they are vandalized and overgrown with brush to the point where they are unapproachable?
Copy Editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jim Anderson, in his July 24th article "Graveyards Where History Lives On," talks about a couple of Washington County graveyards which have been recognized as historically significant places. One which has been well maintained and looked after, and one in which crumbling head markers and years of neglect are starkly obvious. The article goes on to say:
There are more than 4,000 cemeteries and farm burial grounds in Minnesota; many are abandoned or under threat of vandalism and neglect, their history forgotten. "I would call it a significant problem," said Bonnie McDonald, executive director of the Minnesota Preservation Alliance.
A significant problem indeed. I can't begin to convey how many times I have relied upon headstones as a source of information in my research, they truly portray invaluable information about the course of a person's life. Not to mention the emotional connection I feel with my own ancestor's final resting places.
So, what can we do about it?
There is a movement right now going on among historians, genealogists and hobbyists of all levels and backgrounds to transcribe headstone listings. Using the Internet to keep record of the massive lists of names and dates and even photographs of the stones themselves. Some amazing resources exist for those who either can't travel to the cemetery where their ancestors are buried or are just starting out in their research, to name a few:
If you are so lucky as to be able to visit the cemetery where your ancestors are buried, realize, it likely will not be around forever. Take as much information as you can, transcribe, take a rubbing, or a photograph. Next, you may consider donating that information to one or more of the websites dedicated to preserving such information. Many companies, such as The Historium, who do some of this research on behalf of clients, will offer you the chance to sign a waiver, allowing them to donate information like this to the applicable societies and web resources, that way, the information about these people will hopefully never vanish entirely.
In history, it is important to remember that the information you are looking at has significance to more than just your individual subject, it belongs to a greater context. Cemeteries don't just serve as filing cabinets for names and dates of seemingly insignificant events, they tell a story of the origin of a town. Graveyards portray an intimate look at the times, lives, and circumstances that woven together create cities, counties, and territories. Of course, there are also other ways to help: contacting historical societies, preservation associations, and even local and state government can help to rectify the situation, there is often a need for man-power and monetary support. Even though fighting the passage of time can seem relentlessly tedious and sometimes even hopeless, it is so very important that these records remain.