The resting places of the dead were once essential parts of the community for those still alive and kicking.
Up until the arrival of the 1900s, cemeteries in some locations functioned like municipal parks, with families visiting them on sunny days to have picnics, celebrate special events or even take their dogs out for a stroll. They were not forbidding sites where one had to observe the etiquette of maximum solemnity, or scary places where, who knows, zombies might might come out to frolic, like they do in “The Night of the Living Dead.”
While cemeteries are no longer the location to which most of us are inevitably bound – cremation is gaining ground in the United States, and it’s already the most common form of final disposition in much of Europe and Asia – they are still vital and valuable repositories of history.
Unfortunately, too many of the cemeteries that dot the landscape both here in Pennsylvania and around the country are tumbling into neglect. To a degree, this is understandable – some old family cemeteries are located on private property, beyond the reach of municipalities that might otherwise tend to them, and some cemeteries have fallen into disrepair thanks to the unforgiving vagaries of time. And if records about a cemetery have vanished or are incomplete, that makes the job of revitalizing a cemetery all the more difficult.
Happily, some dedicated sleuths and historians are making the effort to revitalize a cemetery in Amwell Township. As our Karen Mansfield detailed in a story that appeared in the May 26 edition, the township’s historical society is engaged in the “monumental mission” of restoring VanKirk Cemetery. Located off Johnson Road, it is believed that 74 onetime residents of the township are buried there, and that tally includes six veterans of the Revolutionary War. The great-grandson of one of those veterans turned out to be Warren Harding, who became president of the United States in 1920.
For the last two months, volunteers have been clearing away dead trees and brush, scrubbing dirt from weathered tombstones and searching for plots that have otherwise been obscured. So far, 40 plots have been identified.
Ray Day, a member of the historical society, explained that restoring the cemetery will take time. “This is not something we’re going to get done any time soon,” he said, adding, “But it needs to be done.”
National groups like the Cemetery Protection Resource Training Alliance are doing their part to assist communities that want to restore historic cemeteries. Sarah Miller, a Florida archaeologist and the group’s founder, told Forbes in 2015 that cemeteries that have gone to seed make communities less safe, and that people shouldn’t hesitate to visit what she describes as “amazing outdoor museums,” and take steps to save them.
“Wherever people have lived, people have died,” Miller said. “Historic cemeteries are often neglected, but with just a small amount of effort, you can see results quickly.”
Washington and Greene counties are dotted with historic cemeteries hidden away from well-traveled streets and roads. More chroniclers of local history need to emulate the example of the Amwell Township Historical Society, and bring these “amazing outdoor museums” back to life.