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Abandoned Graveyards and Unearthing Forgotten Stories through Restoration

You may walk by it from the street to work every day. Or you might spot a shoddy fence protecting an unexpected area in your city or town. The slow and steady march of time has all but erased and claimed many graveyards worldwide. Neighborhoods sprout up on all sides, tall grasses reclaim the ground, and sometimes, the oldest burial places fade from memory. 

In the South, segregation and Diaspora still result in the discovery of unmarked Black graveyards, discovering history and ancestry thought long lost. Furthermore, many people within a Public Archaeology Network are actively working on seeking, discovering, studying, and uncovering the history of these so-called abandoned cemeteries, but why? 

Restoration of abandoned cemeteries leads to unearthing forgotten stories and histories. 

How Do Graveyards Become Abandoned? 

Abandoned cemeteries or graveyards are burial spaces that are no longer maintained. There are many reasons why a graveyard becomes abandoned: 

  • Financial difficulty. If funding runs out or during the foreclosure or bankruptcy process, all operations at a cemetery halt until the cemetery ends up closed or abandoned.
  • Natural disaster
  • Natural migration away from smaller towns and cities, leaving places abandoned.
  • Unpleasant reputation or accessibility is poor, broken regulations
  • Real estate development
  • Segregation and Diaspora led to African American, Indigenous, or POC graveyards not being noted or marked essential, with documents being lost and the cemetery falling to nature. 

Restoring Abandoned Cemeteries: How Important Is It? 

For many of us, cemetery restoration and preservation is essential for personal reasons, but ask anyone who volunteers or maintains a historic burial site. You might be surprised to hear all of them mention that it also matters to preserve history

There is so much history to be discovered and found in preserving diverse, creative, and personal histories. History is lost every day, as we lose the important details of someone as a person as we tend to focus on what they did or invented, sanitizing humanity from history. Tombstones, grave markers, and cemetery monuments typically express how loved ones felt about the person at the time of their death, and cemetery symbolism can often take it further to give us, even more, hints about who the person buried there was. It's so much more than a first and last name on a rock. 

For many, finding and rediscovering abandoned cemeteries is a means of reclaiming lost history and culture that Diaspora and time have taken away from them, making the research and restoration of abandoned or forgotten graveyards remarkably personal. 

Tombstone Treasures

Cemeteries are the hidden stories of our cities, towns, and villages buried beneath the layers of time, asphalt, or the wild. Cemeteries and graveyards hold rich historical significance, providing a unique look into the past. These forgotten resting places often hold gravesites that can date back centuries, offering a glimpse into the lives of those who came before us.

By collaborating with local historians, archaeologists, and community activists, abandoned graveyard restoration projects bring these forgotten sites and people back to life. Through meticulous research and careful preservation, these groups, volunteers, researchers, and professionals can save and restore grave markers and tombstones and restore entire burial structures to their former glory. 

But what else can benefit from the restoration of abandoned graveyards? 

  • Many abandoned cemeteries during the discovery and restoration period pave the way for a better, greener future. Once-neglected spaces often become thriving ecosystems, acting as green lungs within our crowded cities or towns, while revitalized, a restored cemetery can attract a diverse array of fauna, bolstering insect populations and providing vital, safe wildlife travel corridors. Moreover, within a bustling city, the increase in greenery can help mitigate the heat island effect, reducing summer temperatures while increasing air quality in areas nearby. 

  • Historicial Significance. Burial sites have been a part of our civilization since we've done them. Burial sites act as a preserved time capsule, keeping the stories of individuals and communities that once thrived in the area. Tombstones, epitaphs, and other memorials shed light on the lives, achievements, and struggles of those who came before us—providing experts, researchers, genealogists, and history enthusiasts alike glimpses into the past. Additionally, burial sites can often help map towns and cities' population growth and development during specific periods.

Cemeteries have come a long way from being mere places for mourning. They are more than the end of a journey; they are captivating historical and cultural hotspots with thriving ecological hubs and a means of rediscovering long-lost stories. We're happy to see so many forgotten or abandoned graveyards come to light in 2023 and hope to see more astonishing discoveries in the years forward.

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