Preserving and Documenting Historic Burial Grounds

A Graveyard Preservation Primer

Many historic burial grounds and graveyards are in need of preservation and maintenance work. Unfortunately, very little readily available information focuses on the care of these historic cultural resources.

This primer aims to bridge this gap between the maintenance staff, cemetery boards, and friends groups who own and maintain these historic sites. The primer offers responsible, easily accessible, preservation planning guidance for these important cultural resources.

Identifying a Graveyard

The first step in identifying a graveyard is to observe the area. Look for inscriptions on tombstones that may reveal information about burial practices, such as if the deceased were buried with their in-laws or if they were slaves. Also look for the kinds of plantings, if any, such as flowers, herbs, shrubs, or trees that were popular in particular time periods or had symbolic significance.

Note whether the area is called a cemetery or graveyard. While they’re often used interchangeably, a graveyard is traditionally associated with a church and is often smaller because of land limitations. It is generally choosier about who it will allow to be buried there, as well.

A cemetery, on the other hand, is not tied to a particular place of worship and is usually much larger and more modern in appearance. It is also more likely to be used by a wider range of religions than a graveyard is.

Documenting a Graveyard

While a graveyard may seem like an uninviting place to visit, it can be rich in evidence about the people who are interred there. A careful look can yield evidence about family relations, religious beliefs, social standings, and technological knowledge.

A graveyard is also a good place to observe the natural landscape. See if there are areas of erosion or flooding. If the site is on private property, get permission to go onto it. Be sure to take a map of the area and bring supplies to document what you find. Take measurements, photos, rubbings or sketches of engravings, and notes about dating.

It’s important to note that it is common for more than one person to be buried in a single plot. Make sure to include all the names and relationships. If a spouse is buried with their husband, there should be an indication of that in the inscription. It is also common to find sisters, parents, and children buried together.

Identifying a Monument

A monument is a constructed piece of architecture meant to remind a community of a meaningful aspect of their history. A monument can have more than one meaning, evoke different feelings and be interpreted in a variety of ways by viewers. This is because the viewer brings their own perceptions, personal background and history, and sociocultural political context to the viewing of a monument.

Students can investigate how a monument communicates information through its design and features, such as sculpture, inscriptions, or tablesaux. This can help students understand how a monument can convey a message that differs from what the designer intended. In addition, examining how the monument was created can provide insights into the social context of the time in which it was made. Finally, evaluating how the structure is functioning can also be a good way to teach about stewardship and preservation. For example, observing how a monument is shifting in its position over time can be an indicator of structural instability and warrant further investigation.

Identifying a Tomb

Steps to identify a tomb can lead to information about the people buried there: their family relationships, religious beliefs and social standings. Careful observation with the eye of a detective can provide clues to find this evidence.

Look for inscriptions that reveal family members, their occupations and other information about the deceased. Try to determine the ethnicities of those buried here by studying the language, symbols and designs of the markers.

Examine the design of the tomb to see what architectural features and decorations were used to convey status or wealth, or religious piety. Make a rubbing of the tombstone to study the inscription, if possible. If making a rubbing is not feasible, a photograph of the tomb may be an option. Also note any hazards that you encounter while examining the site, such as leaky or unstable structures and broken masonry. Record these details on your field survey forms. Also consider a magnetic survey of the burial ground, using a magnetometer to detect disturbed soils that correspond with marked and unmarked graves.

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