Originally created 07/31/05

Preserving gravesites is a lonely task



EASTVILLE, Ga. - He's been dead for more than a century, but they're still looking for Darius East.

For Don East and his son, Donnie, the search for Darius - Don's great-great-grandfather - is a quest for family history.

Sliding across the roads and fields in Oconee County, the pair tries to preserve and repair the cemeteries where members of their family are buried.

"A lot of people don't even know where their grandparents are buried, you know?" Don East said after giving a visitor a tour of two of the family's gravesites. "That's sad."

On a recent Saturday, the two men were in Eastville to clear a plot of earth left undisturbed for more than 130 years, ever since Salias East - Darius' father - was buried there in 1868.

Salias' grave is unusually well-preserved. Cemeteries across the country are often abandoned by family members, endangered by the creep of cities and suburbs, or neglected because of a lack of attention and volunteerism.

Laws and government programs vary from state to state. And little coordination exists on cemetery preservation issues, resulting in few, if any, reliable numbers on how many cemeteries are endangered, neglected or destroyed.

The argument for preserving these cemeteries is not just an affection for ancestors, says Michael Trinkley, the director of the Chicora Foundation, a South Carolina group devoted to protecting and restoring gravesites.

"As we destroy these cemeteries, as we allow them to collapse into ruin, we are losing more and more of our history," he warns.

A volunteer force

When it comes to cemetery preservation, the Easts are a fairly typical story, part of a hodgepodge coalition of genealogists, history buffs and others.

That's because the task of watching the burial grounds of the past falls largely to those who do it in their spare time.

"Cemetery preservation, first of all, is something that is being performed admirably, primarily by volunteers in this state," said Christine Neal, an archaeology program coordinator for the Georgia Historic Preservation Division. "They're doing it out of the goodness of their heart in places that are important to them."

It was Don East's wife, having traced her roots back to 1415, who got him interested in charting his family history nearly 30 years ago. Eventually, he began bringing his children with him on some of his travels to the gravesites of the early residents of Eastville.

On this muggy Saturday, the main focus was on replacing Salias' headstone, a simple and small slab of white marble gone for at least a quarter-century.

"It's been out the ground long enough," Mr. East said. "I'm going to put it back."

The gravesite was a tangled thicket of vegetation in a field of nearly knee-high grass.

Don East said his father and grandfather used to visit the plot regularly, looking after it, cleaning it. Over the years, family outings like those have faded away.

"That used to be an old tradition," Mr. East said. "People have gotten away from that. Guess they're just too busy."

Lately, the business of genealogy has begun to shift to Donnie, 36, who has begun to put the information the two have collected in a database. The hobby has turned into a profitable enterprise for the younger Mr. East, who runs a company that specializes in tracking down court records.

His lonely pursuit illustrates the political dynamic of government funding for cemetery preservation, advocates say. Since so few people are committed to it, politicians devote few resources.

Observers say awareness of the problems surrounding cemetery preservation might be rising.

"There's certainly some degree of interest out there," Mr. Trinkley said. "Now in the context of, is this where the public wants to spend their money, I don't know."

Land and laws

Many of the cemeteries most in danger are not marked by hundreds of headstones. Most of those that worry preservationists are the opposite: graves such as Salias East's or family plots on long-ago farms or churchyards that no longer exist.

"Folks had less access to the bigger city cemeteries," said Ms. Neal of the Georgia Historic Preservation Division. "So we have these little cemeteries all over the state."

She noted that the state has been home to humans in one society or another for 12,000 years.

"I've always said that's a lot of dead people," Ms. Neal said.

Whereas social norms and customs used to protect burial grounds in ancient communities, states have begun turning more to legislation in the past half-century to protect cemeteries. Today, there are at least two areas of the law that most preservationists tend to focus on: those that protect family access to gravesites, and those that protect the cemeteries themselves from development.

Access to the sites, at least for families, often isn't a difficult sell; for the most part, landowners are understanding of someone's wish to see the site of an ancestor's burial. Some will even let a hobbyist take a look.

"Most people are reasonable, and they don't mind a bit," said Ted Brooke, a retiree in Cumming, Ga., who has written books both on preservation and about particular sites.

But some do cause problems, and the laws can vary from state to state. In Georgia, families have an "implied easement" to view their ancestors. But that easement is found in case law - written by the courts and not spelled out in the state's statutes.

For the most part, authority to handle cemetery law rests with law enforcement authorities.

Even laws guarding the sanctity of graves from disturbance by developers and property owners can be ineffective; in South Carolina, Mr. Trinkley said, the bar for proving someone meant to destroy a cemetery is so high that it makes it difficult to prosecute.

'And cemeteries'

Another problem, advocates say, is the tendency of preservationists to focus on the more tangible signs of the past: historic buildings, significant streets, famous statues.

That can be frustrating for people such as Mr. Trinkley, who sees more interest in worrying about the location of a cell-phone tower than in making sure that a cemetery is left undisturbed.

The money tends to flow to projects such as rehabilitating old houses, he said, but it's more difficult to find funding for initiatives such as Chicora's mission.

"I think that's a tragic mistake on the part of preservationists at large," he said.

Protecting cemeteries requires more than a one-dimensional solution, Mr. Trinkley said. Focusing on cemeteries for one year, or cleaning them up for one day, isn't the answer.

"That may make us feel warm and fuzzy. But ultimately, it's not going to achieve any goals," he said.