Good souls: Cemetery care often falls to volunteers 

Peggy Byrd crosses a thick mat of grass in Mount Hope Cemetery on her way to a large monument next to a tight row of small headstones. One of the stones is engraved, "Margaret Van Ingen Weston 1902-1990."

"There's my Aunt [Margaret]," Byrd says. "By just going into the cemetery office and asking where my aunt was, I found all of these other people in my family. I've done so much research, I feel like I know them. I have pictures of all of them."

Byrd makes her way over to a second site, where more of her relatives reside. A monument reads, "Children of Bernard and Mary Van Ingen."

"Look at the dates on the children's headstones," Byrd says. "Four of their six children died of diphtheria in the same month that year. Can you imagine that?"

Byrd has found the gravesites of many of her Dutch ancestors in Mount Hope over the last few years, most of whom she never had the chance to meet. She says it's played an integral part in her genealogical quest. And Byrd is far from alone. The public's fascination with genealogy is one of many reasons why cemeteries have experienced a renaissance in popularity over the last 15 years.

Though preservation is often associated with the restoration of architecturally significant buildings, homes of famous people, or prominent public institutions to their former glory, cemeteries have been steadily rising in importance in the preservation movement. The Landmark Society recently selected the Hillside Cemetery and Chapel in the Town of Clarendon as one of its 2014 "Five to Revive" sites in the Rochester area.

At least once a week, Byrd walks her dog, Willie, through Mount Hope or one of Rochester's other cemeteries. A tall woman with a flash of white hair, Byrd says that cemeteries are a treasure trove of information. But she confides that their main allure is their beauty.

"I feel comforted being here," she says. "I feel connected to this place. Cemeteries are as much about life as they are about death. There are all of these amazing stories here. Everywhere you turn there are stories about the lives of the people who lived here before us."

Cemeteries are unique, which only adds to their preservation cachet. Many are still operational, and restoration can help enhance their use.

And they can fill a surprisingly diverse range of uses that go far beyond burials, such as hiking and bird watching. And they attract students and enthusiasts of history, archeology, geology, and landscape architecture.

Many cemeteries were designed as parks or gardens, particularly if they were developed during the Victorian era. Mount Hope Cemetery, which was founded in 1838 as the nation's first municipal cemetery, is a Victorian-era cemetery. It occupies roughly 200 acres of terrain formed by glaciers, but its landscape was purposely designed to inspire.

"Although this place looks like it sprang up from nature, every square foot of it is designed space," says Dennis Carr, one of the cemetery's longtime tour guides. "Today's cemeteries are often flat fields. But in the 1830's, that's not what people were looking for. They wanted romanticism."

Views on death and dying were also different in the mid-1800's, says Marilyn Nolte, president of the Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery. Nolte is something of an honorary professor when it comes to preserving cemeteries. Her all-volunteer nonprofit is committed to the restoration and preservation of what many people consider to be one of Rochester's most important historic landmarks.

Cemeteries were called parks back then, Nolte says, because people would picnic in them, stroll through them, and literally spend time with the people in their family who had died.

"People generally didn't live as long as they do today," says Jason Church, materials conservator for the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. "You often had more family members in the cemetery than you did at a holiday dinner or reunion"

Church's organization held a seminar on cemetery preservation in Niagara Falls earlier this year, and he's had the chance to visit Mount Hope.

Cemeteries are also referred to as sculpture parks, he says, which makes them prized sites for photographers, painters, and filmmakers. Older monuments, mausoleums, crypts, and headstones were often designed with a combination of wit, symbolism, and storytelling, he says. The craftsmanship and artistry can be challenging to replace, he says.

"In the Victorian cemetery, the headstone was quite fashionable," Church says. "Mausoleums often were designed by the same person who designed your house. It was the peak of fashion."

But one of the biggest reasons for preserving cemeteries is their vast historical value, Church says. In some ways, he says, cemeteries offer a rare insight into our deepest questions.

"They provide us with a sense of place, a sense of who we are and where we come from," he says.

But rescuing a cemetery from neglect and deterioration is a complex process. Despite its stature, Mount Hope Cemetery is like most municipally-owned cemeteries in that it's not a profitable enterprise, says city Commissioner Norman Jones.

"The taxpayer does subsidize the cemetery because the costs are high, especially for a cemetery of this age and historical importance," he says.

His department is responsible for the maintenance and care of the city-owned cemeteries. Mount Hope has seven full-time employees who work on the grounds, and they are augmented by seasonal help, Jones says.

But the city's job of keeping up with repairs and maintenance is formidable, Jones says. That's why many preservationists say that forming some type of stewardship organization such as Friends of Mt. Hope Cemetery is almost essential for communities hoping to preserve their cemeteries.

And strangely, one of the first obstacles most preservation groups face is determining who owns the cemetery that they want to preserve. Ownership can vary widely. In some ways, purchasing a grave site is a bit like purchasing real estate. The site will likely come with some rules and regulations, but for the most part, it's up to the owners of the mausoleums, monuments, and headstones to maintain them.

Many people assume, however, that when they purchase a burial site, that the cemetery and the burial site will be cared for indefinitely. And that's not the case. Many cemeteries in New York and across the US have been lost, abandoned, or relocated.

"We lose cemeteries all the time," Church says. Sometimes there are records about cemetery locations and grave identifications, he says, but they may be incomplete.

And how well a cemetery is maintained often depends on the type of cemetery and the events or developments that have occurred around it. For example, in the pre-Civil War years, many families worked large farms, and their small burial plots were often located somewhere on the grounds. But over time, as the farms were sold and the land was used for different purposes, many of those cemeteries were lost.

There are also religious cemeteries, municipal cemeteries, and privately-owned and operated cemeteries.

"With a lot of these cemeteries, the church goes out of business and the cemetery gets left there, or the farm has been sold and the family no longer exists, and the cemetery is forgotten," says Mount Hope's Nolte.

When a cemetery is abandoned in New York State, it becomes the responsibility of the municipality in which it's located. But that doesn't guarantee that the cemetery will be maintained, much less restored and preserved.

The Brighton Cemetery Association is working hard at restoring its cemetery, but there have been hurdles. The Brighton Cemetery was established in 1817 by the Brighton Congregational Society, and it was built next to a small church. When a fire destroyed the church in the mid 1800's, much of the cemetery's early records were lost, says Mary Jo Lanphear, historian for the Town of Brighton.

Making matters even more complicated is that the section of Brighton near East Avenue and North Winton Road where the cemetery is located was annexed by the City of Rochester in the early 1900's. Technically, many of Brighton's early town leaders and citizens are buried in the city, Lanphear says.

"Brighton doesn't have a cemetery," she says.

Interstate 490 near North Winton Road borders the cemetery and the roar of trucks and cars is almost overwhelming. A few older headstones are broken in half, revealing crusty salt-like centers that appear too porous to repair.

But the association has worked hard to preserve the gravesites of some of Brighton's prominent citizens, such as Celestia Bloss, textbook author and founder of the Clover Street Seminary; and William Billinghurst, who gave Brighton its name.

Other problems for cemeteries include vandalism and theft. Monuments are tipped over, broken, or painted with graffiti. And metals like bronze that are used to secure small flags, urns, or some other ornamentation near graves are frequently stolen. The metal can be exchanged for cash.

Woodchucks pose a different problem, says Mount Hope's Nolte, holding up a large metal handle to an old casket.

"Each one will dig two or three holes to their den," she says. "And they dig up all kinds of things — some things you don't even want to know about."

But frost heaving is one of the worst challenges for cemeteries in colder climates. When the ground freezes, over time it can lift the base of headstones and monuments, tilting them off balance. This can eventually cause the stones to fall and break.

Water can also cause breakage by seeping into older stones and expanding as it freezes.

The cost of repairing gravesites can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands. But deciding whether to make those repairs is a judgment call, Nolte says. Even though it's the owners' responsibility to maintain a monument or mausoleum, what if the owner is dead? And what if there are no surviving family members?

Nolte says that she's had to check many times for direct descendants before making repairs, but frequently there are none to be found.

"We do put up fallen stones," she says. "But in the case of a mausoleum, if you don't do anything and it falls down, the bodies will have to be reburied in the ground."

And making the repairs is ultimately better for the cemetery's business, she says.

"If you visited a cemetery and you were thinking of purchasing there and you saw all of these damaged stones lying around, you might think, 'This isn't right for me,'" she says.

There are also larger projects under way at Mount Hope, including a reforestation program. Mount Hope has lost more than 250 trees over four years, according to city officials — some were diseased and others fell victim to age. A fund-raising campaign is under way to raise $70,000 for new trees. About $22,000 has been raised so far.

And the city is in the process of developing a master plan to serve as a vision for the cemetery's future growth and care.

But there's a whole other component to preserving a cemetery that is completely separate from physical maintenance and repair work.

"You could say that it's like anything else; you have to find unique ways to promote your business," Nolte says.

While there are notable people buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, including Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, it's also a wildlife habitat. There are bluebird birdhouses all over the cemetery.

"It's on the path of a lot of migratory birds," Nolte says, and the cemetery draws a lot of bird watchers.

Friends of Mount Hope regularly offer themed tours for a small fee to raise funds, she says, and the group applies for grants.

"Once you get people in here looking around and seeing everything that's here, learning all of these [historical] things about the cemetery, they become a lot more interested," she says.

She says that she advises other preservations groups to capitalize on what makes their cemetery special. Cemeteries don't have to be of the size and scale of Mount Hope to be worthy of preservation, she says. Sometimes it's easier to preserve small cemeteries, she says.

"I think our community has always valued our cemetery," says Tom Cook, president of the Oakwood Cemetery Association in Nunda, New York. Cook's group has completed restoration work to the cemetery's 1897 soldier's monument, and members conduct a lot of tours.

The former school teacher says that he especially likes giving tours to students.

"I tell them it's like an outdoor history book," Cook says. "And I want them to see that the way a community takes care of its cemetery says a lot about the health of a community."

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