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Eclectic Pedestrian

Resolved for 2009: Taking better care of cemeteries

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NOTE: This post originally appeared at my blog on cemeteries and land use, Whistling Past the Graveyard, at taphofiles.blogspot.com:

THIS IS the last thing you need - another list of resolutions/suggestions for the coming year. But threats to cemeteries have never been more serious.

Constant suburban sprawl and urban redevelopment are threatening existing cemeteries and grabbing land that otherwise could be used for burial grounds. The economic downturn has led to increased looting at cemeteries of anything that might be of value - from brass ornaments to even wrought-iron gates. These cases are a burden to the cemeteries themselves and to law-enforcement and the courts.

So, in the spirit of gentle prodding, I suggest:

> Visit cemeteries on some other occasion than to bury a loved one. One of the root causes of our problems with cemeteries is that too few people visit unless they are there for a funeral. When I began my research in 2007, the owner-operator of Manahath Cemetery in Glassboro, N.J., told me that our society pushes off important decisions such as burial arrangements - sometimes until never - which, among other things, leaves a tremendous burden on the surviving loved ones.
Well, it also leaves a burden of another type - onto the owners and operators of cemeteries. People don't notice if a graveyard has fallen into disrepair until they go there to visit their loved ones. Maybe if we all spent a little more time in cemeteries while we are alive, we'd see another way to help our communities.
It also might give society a greater sense of respect for the dead. Yes, some of the vandalism that occurs is caused merely by bored teens, but some of it shows a particularly destructive side to human nature. Perhaps if we thought more about cemeteries, we'd show greater respect for the sacred grounds and pass on this sense of respect to our children.

> While there, take pictures. Many genealogical, historical, landscape architectural, etc., organizations would be interested in your work - and you just might pick up a new hobby in the meantime.

> Urge your local cemetery owner-operators to consider natural-burial options. State regulations differ, but many states don't absolutely ban such practices; rather, conventional burials, with wooden coffins, concrete or steel vaults, and finely (and expensively) manicured lawns have become a standard business practice for the convenience of those owner-operators. The non-profit Green Burial Council estimates that enough metal is buried in the ground each year to build a new Golden Gate Bridge.
Likewise, urge owner-operators to consider native plants for their grounds. Natives are - naturally - more resistant to disease and drought conditions and take less work to care for them.

> Urge your local wildlife and nature organizations to form partnerships with cemeteries. In Camden, N.J., observers to the Harleigh Cemetery have recorded dozens of animal and plant species; most cemeteries can do the same - and, with the help of nature organizations, can help replenish what's gone and restore what's trying to get a foothold.
Birdwatching groups, especially, have plenty of options for bird counts; don't forget to include cemeteries as the location for your count.

> Get involved with your local historic preservation organization; many of them are involved at some level in keeping old cemeteries attractive, and all of them can use the help.

> Get involved with your local zoning, planning, redevelopment, etc., organizations. As research has shown, someday, sometime, somehow, we'll have to find room for the 350 million-plus souls in the U.S. alone. The communities with foresight will have ideas on where and how to expand existing cemeteries and where to build new ones. Such organizations also are well-versed in ways to incorporate cemeteries into local "greenways" programs; sometimes the cemetery is the only patch of green in town. These organizations also should be at the forefront in planning for such things as stormwater runoff, drainage, flooding protection and other items that fall under the banner of "urban planning," and folks with knowledge of this particular area of focus would be welcome.

> Commit yourself to one service project a year. If you can get involved with an organization, that's all well and good, but you can also devote some time to your own, personal good deed. You don't need to work under some community banner to be a good citizen. Maybe it's cleaning up some trash around the entrance. Maybe it's buying some American flags to place on veterans' graves, or working with a local vets organization to help them with their projects.

For help in making any of the above resolutions, see the first one listed - visit cemeteries - to get started.