Cemetery restoration projects typically fall on the shoulders of either a few volunteers or a local historical society. Access to public funds is challenging; securing reasonably priced preservation expertise, daunting. However, King County, Washington is looking to change this approach through a new program called, “Historic Graves and Cemeteries Preservation Initiative”.
The program is designed to:
• Raise awareness of the state of local cemeteries;
• Provide public information and outreach;
• Survey active, inactive, and abandoned cemeteries;
• Determine priorities for preservation and restoration.
Last year, Lauren McCroskey, Chair of the King County Landmarks Commission, formally introduced the Initiative. Here is an excerpt of her remarks.
“Many well-established cemeteries are increasingly strapped for funds due to changing funerary practices while those small family plots with only a handful of markers, are overgrown and invisible. These are the graves of those with no known descendants, whose stories have been muted for decades.
Racked, fallen, or simply missing, grave markers are often the only link we have to the individuals and events that helped shape the region we know today.
The King County Landmarks Commission has stepped up to help change this landscape.
In 2008, King County Councilmember Julia Patterson officially kicked off the Commission’s “Historic Graves and Cemeteries Preservation Initiative”. Chair Patterson was especially moved by those who labored to preserve the Saar Cemetery, a property located in her District. The new initiative actively targets:
• Those burial places 40 years of age, or older;
• A raised awareness of their fragility from vandalism, weather, development, and neglect;
• Finding new stewards;
• Maintenance and restoration funds provisions.
In an effort to build on the 100+ cemeteries recorded to date, the County’s Historic Preservation Program will conduct an intensive survey effort to document the condition of cemeteries throughout the county. Staff will also provide technical assistance to mend burial markers and crypts that have been improperly repaired by well meaning caretakers.
Cemetery preservation also has a role in heritage tourism.
No longer just a Halloween dare, cemetery tours have become popular among visitors wanting a glimpse into the unvarnished history of a region.
Sometimes the key events, demographic realities, epidemics, social organization, and cultural expressions that escape guidebooks are found in headstone inscriptions and funerary art. Increased visitation can also inspire efforts to fund restoration and maintenance, or move volunteers to tend grounds and monitor threats to these vulnerable places.
The Commission is hopeful that the initiative will encourage new stewards to step up and honor the lives of those remembered in these quiet graves.
Whatever their place in history, these cemeteries bind an ever-changing landscape to its beginnings. A marker with a sentimental verse tells us how the first white settlers reconciled loss with larger world views, and recalls early ideas about commitment, loyalty, language, and art. A modest grave speaks of a hasty burial in stressful times, of disease and disaster, or of the devotion to a loved one when income was sparse.
Even the choice of stone tells of the craftsmanship expended, the quarry of origin, and perhaps, something about the trouble taken getting the rock to its destination.
Most importantly, historic cemeteries house the energy of our ancestors as they faced the future with reflection and care, and they ask us to pause and remember. Surely these are messages we would not want to lose.”
Next month, Beyond The Ghosts will interview Todd Scott, a preservation architect in King County’s Historic Preservation Program. Scott will talk about a recent hands-on restoration conference in addition to passing on useful links for those communities looking to jumpstart their own Initiatives.