Last week, I wrote about how to restore an average cemetery. Mostly, just stay safe and make sure that you document everything. However, as you’ll find when you start exploring Mason County’s cemeteries, there’s no such thing as an “average” cemetery. Every single cemetery has its own unique set of problems, and some of those problems will require creative solutions. We’ve ran into a few of these situations during our projects, and here are some of my tips on how to deal with them.
1. Don’t try to fix sunken graves. Before 1960, most coffins in the United States were made of wood, and as the wood rotted, the earth sank in to fill the gap. Over 50 years later, the sunken spots are more of a nuisance, and they make it much more difficult to mow a cemetery. However, they also serve a purpose for historians. Sunken graves allow us to pinpoint the exact location of older graves. In newer cemeteries, like Kirkland Memorial Gardens near Lakin, this isn’t an issue because every grave is documented as soon as its dug. In older graves, there usually isn’t a map or even a record of who owns which plot. Headstones can also be moved by nature, animals, and vandals, but the graves themselves will never move.
2. Don’t assume that no headstone means no grave. This goes hand-in-hand with #1. You’ll come across a lot of unmarked graves in Mason County. You may never find out who it is, but you’ll still have to document them. The easiest way to locate them is by searching for sunken spots. You can also find them by looking for certain decorative plants. Easter lilies are commonly found in cemeteries. Finding them in an “empty” plot might be a sign that it isn’t so empty.
3. The edge of the cemetery isn’t necessarily the edge. Again, hand-in-hand with #2. The plots near the edges of cemeteries were usually cheaper and were sold to people who could barely afford the plot, much less a long-lasting headstone. This becomes a problem when you’re trying to put up a new fence. You have to make sure that your fence includes every plot, including the unmarked ones near the edges. My preference, just to be safe, is to include a 10-foot buffer zone between the nearest headstone and your fence.
4. “Fire bad.” I know that sounds obvious, but after a couple months of getting attacked by briars and fighting back tree-of-heaven, a controlled burn will seem like a pretty good option. We even considered it a few times during our first cleanup at Brown Cemetery. Luckily, we didn’t do it. Fire won’t have much of an effect on newer granite headstones. However, it’ll essentially turn older marble headstones to dust, and that’s nothing compared to the really old sandstone markers. Sandstone can explode under intense heat.
5. You’ve got two options. Either fully document the cemetery during your cleanup, or maintain the cemetery when you’re done so that others can access the information. In a perfect world, every cemetery would be maintained on a regular basis, and families would decorate the graves every year. This just isn’t possible. Some cemeteries are just too far off the beaten path to regularly go out and mow. An example would be the cemeteries in the TNT Area, some of which you have to hike a mile from the nearest trail just to find. After these are cleaned and fully documented, there’s little choice other than to let nature run its course. Though, for other cemeteries that are easier to reach, there should be some kind of plan in place. After the project is done, either the owner or family needs to step in and continue maintenance.
6. Let’s just say that some “natural” features aren’t so natural. A small hill in the middle of your cemetery may not be something so simple, an odd clearing in the woods near a small family cemetery may be the site of the family’s farmhouse, and so on.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be on Saturday, May 12, at 3 p.m. at the Mason County Library. The group will be planning cemetery projects for this summer.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.