Opinion

Preserving history in old cemeteries

This is the time of year when we visit cemeteries.  Sometimes what we find is not what we expected. In a neighboring town I found one cemetery with missing stones.  We located heaps of pieces of stones tossed over a bank into the woods like so much rubbish. In another we found that when old stones fell, the town crew hauled in soil, burying the stones and leaving nothing but an empty green space.  

As a child I visited that cemetery often and recall Civil War, War of 1812, and Revolutionary War veterans buried there.  A few years ago we traveled to visit the gravesite of a great-granduncle who died in the Civil War. The burial lot was totally bare. We finally located his stone, which is now part of a monument to Civil War veterans.  It’s a fine monument with a flag and three Civil War soldiers’ stones tightly mounted in a row. These stones were moved from their burial plots and nothing was left to indicate where the bodies lay.

In another cemetery we found evidence that a ride-around lawn mower had seriously damaged marble stones, broken one into two pieces, chipped another, and left tire tracks over a fallen stone.

For a genealogist all this makes you sad, disgusted, furious, or all three.  In so many cases the only death record of a person is the stone. Once the headstone is gone, information is lost to history, as well as the sad fact that the body lies where it can’t be discovered.

Enter the Maine Old Cemetery Association.  The association is a group of members who are interested in preserving old cemeteries.  They do this through daylong workshops where the care and maintenance of stones is discussed and through tours of old cemeteries.  

In addition, members of the group have transcribed thousands of old records from cemetery stones.  It is through MOCA records that I knew where my great-granduncle was supposedly buried. Volunteers also transcribed the stones in a cemetery near me where all the old stones are buried.  These records are sometimes the only record of what was engraved on a stone.

If you’re interested in old cemeteries and the preservation of headstones, you can learn more about joining the Maine Old Cemetery Association by visiting their wonderful and informative website at www.moca-me.org.  They also have a Facebook group.  Memberships start at $7 per year and include quarterly newsletters.  This year two daylong workshops are planned for July and September in different locations around the state.  

I hope none of you ever find some of the horrors I’ve discovered in cemeteries though I suspect many of you reading this are nodding your heads at things you’ve found. I urge you to join MOCA if you haven’t already and become a watchdog for any old cemeteries near you.  Future generations of genealogists and historians will thank you, not to mention the silent thanks of those who have gone before us and who should be accorded respect.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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