July 9, 2013

10 Tips for Researching Historic Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

In popular culture, cemeteries have something of a bad reputation, considered by many to be sad or creepy on their best day, and downright haunted on their worst. But this is by no means a complete or accurate view; they also can be beautiful, peaceful, historic, and educational.

Overall, cemeteries need to be well-researched and preserved so they can tell us more about how people in the past viewed death and burial. This toolkit is designed to help you start researching cemeteries; you can find more information on how to save them in our publication Preservation of Historic Burial Grounds.

Please note: In this post we’ve focused on 17th - 19th century burial grounds -- essentially non-modern churchyards, cemeteries, and family plots. A future toolkit will take on prehistoric and Native American sacred and burial sites.

1. Be sensitive. If there is a golden rule to the preservation of cemeteries and burial grounds, it is to be aware that our diverse country is home to a wide variety of burial customs. Take into account cultural sensitivities when working above-ground, and employ only professional, trained archaeologists for below-ground research.

2. Pay attention on the way in. The entrance to a burial ground can tell you a lot about the time period in which it was established and the culture associated with it, as well as the materials available and the types of craftsmanship. It can also provide clues about boundaries, other entrance points, and aesthetics.

Tip: If you encounter a simple site with no exterior enclosure such as a wall or fence, it should remain that way, unless there is a security concern that requires closing it off.

3. Examine the burial enclosures. The presence (or absence) of fencing and other plot definitions can indicate the era in which the cemetery was active, its level of sophistication, and the economic status of those buried there. For example, wrought or cast iron fences and gates would suggest a more elaborate cemetery, whereas brick, stone, or wood is indicative of a simpler burial ground.

3. Notice the trees. Mature trees may be one of the most beautiful aspects of a burial area, but they are also one of the most historically significant. They may have been memorials, part of the original design plan, or added during a previous restoration process. Any (or all) of these reasons are sufficient for maintaining the trees.

Tip: A landscape historian or an arborist may be helpful in making distinctions between the function of the trees. Your local college or university may be able to recommend a consultant.

4. And don’t miss out on the smaller plants. Most particularly in cemeteries that have been untouched for great lengths of time, grave plantings may be the only indications of where a burial site was.

5. Consider the retaining walls. These features can be important for two reasons. First, like the entrances, they provide clues about craftsmanship and materials, and second, they often provide a critical function of preventing erosion from toppling tombstones and keeping remains in place.

6. Look for open spaces. Often, the area of a cemetery that appears at first glance to be empty is in fact the oldest section and where burial markers have been lost to time. It could also be a “potter’s field” -- intentionally unmarked graves where the poor or unknown are buried.

Tip: Ground-penetrating radar and/or aerial infrared photography can be used to locate unmarked burials.

7. Remember the buildings. Many cemeteries will have at least a few buildings, such as a church or chapel and a vault. (A more elaborate Victorian cemetery might also have a gate house, administration building, and/or other structures.) These are as important to the site as the burial-related areas and should be given the same critical analysis as any other historic building.

8. Turn on the faucet. Water spigots, believe it or not, are a critical element to consider, as they indicate a milestone point of modernization for a cemetery. The date for this technological advance varies from location to location, depending on when plumbing became readily available.

9. See if you can get wet. As cemeteries took on greater significance as places of beauty and tranquility in the 19th century, many began to include a water feature such as a pond, stream, or waterfall. Identifying and maintaining these features helps respect these more formal designs.

10. Let the grave markers tell their story. Last but certainly not least, the way graves are marked can reveal a great deal of information. While the largest and most formal monuments are the ones most people consider, it’s the smaller ones that often tell hidden secrets about the site. It’s important to have someone with a trained eye look over the site, as important “vernacular” items, such as ordinary-looking objects made of wood, shell, stone, or cast concrete, can easily be overlooked.

Adapted from Preservation of Historic Burial Grounds, a National Trust publication by Lynette Strangstad. The complete book is available from Amazon.com.

Sarah Heffern is the National Trust's social media strategist. While she embraces all things online and pixel-centric, she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @smheffern.


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