How to protect and preserve historic cemeteries

With beautiful architecture, cultural sites, and landscapes across the country, it can be easy to forget about some of our less heralded historic places, like cemeteries and burial grounds. Even still, these places are important to everyday American life and culture, and what’s more, they’re present in nearly every community.

Here are 10 tips for preserving historic cemeteries and burial grounds.

1. Determine—and coordinate with—the congregation, owners, or governing agency responsible for the land. Cemeteries or burial grounds may be associated with a religious organization, located on private property (which the descendants of those buried there might still own), or under the control of a state or local government. In any event, it’s critical to coordinate with the site’s owners at the outset.

2. Start a support group. A nonpartisan and nondenominational “friends” group can work as a neutral party in planning for the cemetery’s preservation and maintenance. In addition, a secular group could be eligible for state and federal funding from which a religious group might be exempt.

3. Look for funding and partners. Creativity is key, as there are not as many resources available for burial ground restoration as for other types of preservation projects. That said, their highly local nature makes them good projects for partnerships with historic societies or civic groups like the Junior League and Jaycees.

photo by: NCPTT Media/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

A volunteer dry ice dusting a headstone.

Like this story? Then you'll love our emails. Sign up today.

4. Pursue historic site designation. It can be difficult to get a cemetery listed on the National Register of Historic Places unless it is part of a historically significant property or is in a historic district. However, getting listed on a state or local register is still beneficial, as it can make the site eligible for funding—as well as offer recognition and prestige.

5. Arrange for training and technical assistance. Having volunteers with the necessary skills ―such as surveying and documentation, stone cleaning and resetting, and site maintenance―can be an critical cost-saving measure in a restoration process. The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training — part of the National Park Service—is a valuable resource for more information.

6. Create a map and conduct surveys. Having accurate documentation of what is on the site is critically important to the preservation process, as it creates a record to work from in the future. The mapping and surveying process should include noting all graves (marked and unmarked); pathways, walls, and fences (both for the perimeter and enclosures); trees and other vegetation; and any other features or buildings.

7. Consider future uses. Before moving into the physical restoration process, it’s important to think about the future visitation level of the burial ground. Is it in an urban area and likely to get a lot of traffic? Or is it more rural and therefore less likely to have many people wandering through? If you expect heavier visitation, take that impact into account when planning.

photo by: NCPTT Media/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

Volunteers learn best practices for preserving tombstones at a Nacogdoches, TX cemetery.

8. Prioritize! Loose or unbalanced markers can be a safety hazard for workers and visitors alike. Put stabilization at the top of the priority list. Likewise, address any landscape issues that could be dangerous, such as unstable surfaces or crumbling retaining walls. After the safety issues are resolved, move on to fixes like iron and stonework.

9. Develop a maintenance plan. Cemeteries and burial grounds require significant ongoing maintenance following the initial restoration. A groundskeeper can manage the routine landscape work, but should do so in a way that doesn’t damage or disturb the grave markers. In addition, all stones should be inspected periodically for wear-and-tear and be gently cleaned of debris.

10. Make it visitor-friendly. A few amenities such as trash cans and informational signs can go a long way in making a historic cemetery or burial ground welcoming. In addition, visitor-friendly activities such as tours can draw attention to the restoration work.

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

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

Some of the web versions of the Preservation Briefs differ somewhat from the printed versions. Many illustrations are new and in color; Captions are simplified and some complex charts are omitted. To order hard copies of the Briefs, see Printed Publications.

How to protect and preserve historic cemeteries

Volunteers can undertake cleaning of grave markers once they have received initial training. Cleaning methods may include wetting the stone, using a mild chemical cleaner, gently agitating the surface with a soft bristle brush, and thoroughly rinsing the marker with clean water. Photo: Jason Church.

PRESERVATION BRIEFS

Mary F. Striegel, Frances Gale, Jason Church and Debbie Dietrich-Smith

Cemeteries found across the country are not only places of burial, but they also provide a vivid record of community history. Whether large or small, well maintained or neglected, historic cemeteries are an important part of our cultural landscape. The vast richness of expression through form, decoration and materials informs our understanding of the individuals buried in historic cemeteries and their cultural significance.

While cemeteries are often considered to be perpetual, their most prominent feature—the grave markers—are not. They weather, naturally decay, often are poorly maintained and repaired and, on occasion, are vandalized. Grave markers are usually noteworthy not only for their inscriptions but also for their craftsmanship. Exceptional markers are considered works of art.

This Preservation Brief focuses on a single aspect of historic cemetery preservation—providing guidance for owners, property managers, administrators, in-house maintenance staff, volunteers, and others who are responsible for or are interested in preserving and protecting grave markers. Besides describing grave marker materials and the risk factors that contribute to their decay, the Brief provides guidance for assessing their conditions and discusses maintenance programs and various preservation treatments.

Some of the most sacred sites in Maryland are in impending danger due to environmental factors as well as the passage of time. Cemeteries face resource specific threats including lack of funding for maintenance and conservation as well as pressure to use the land for development. Preservation Maryland will work closely with the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites to bring much needed attention to the thousands of cemeteries throughout the state that are in disrepair, while also providing the general public with information on how to care for neglected and abandoned cemeteries.

The Problem

Some of the most sacred sites in Maryland are in impending danger due to environmental factors as well as the passage of time. Cemeteries face resource specific threats including lack of funding for maintenance and conservation as well as pressure to use the land for development. In some cases, questions of ownership also halt preservation.

The Fix

Preservation Maryland will work closely with the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites to bring much needed attention to the thousands of cemeteries throughout the state that are in disrepair, while also providing the general public with information on how to care for neglected and abandoned cemeteries. We will also organize volunteer cleanup days at cemeteries around the state.

Updates

JULY 2019

Preservation Maryland’s Cemetery Documentation Specialist, Caroline Herritt, working with the State Highway Administration to document 100 cemeteries across the state will give an update and demonstration about her work in Frederick in July.

MARCH 2019

Working with the Maryland Department of Transportation and the State Highway Administration, Preservation Maryland has embarked on an ambitious project to document 100 cemeteries and burial sites across the state.

May 2018

Through a Six-to-Fix partnership, Preservation Maryland is pleased to offer video recordings of the annual conference of the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites that was was held on Saturday, May 5, 2018 at the Shepard-Pratt Conference Center in Baltimore County.

1 of 5 Historian Jean Epperson tells archeology enthusiast Sheldon Kindall stories about Hammer-McFaddin-Harris Cemetery. Harris County Precinct 2 has taken steps to protect the site from feral hogs and improve access to the graves. Kirk Sides Show More Show Less

2 of 5 A headstone marks the grave site of two members of the Harris family. Harris County is named for David Harris’ brother, John Richardson Harris. Kirk Sides Show More Show Less

4 of 5 Historian Jean Epperson, assisted by her neighbor and history buff Darin Clark, walks with archeology enthusiast Sheldon Kindall as she shares stories about the designated Historic Texas Harris family cemetery which the couple maintains Saturday, Jul. 28. Kirk Sides Show More Show Less

A historic cemetery where the pioneering families of Harris County are buried is easier to access and has better protection from feral hogs, thanks to the efforts of a group of people tending the site.

Members of the Hammer-McFaddin-Harris Cemetery Association were instrumental in persuading Harris County Precinct 2 officials to grade a mile-long road leading to the cemetery and install fencing to prevent feral hogs from rooting up the ground.

“This will help us maintain the cemetery in some kind of good condition, because we can get out there now when we want,” said Jean Epperson, chairwoman of the association, which she founded with her half brother, John Harris. “(The improvements) will certainly encourage people who have family out there to go to the cemetery and people who are interested in history.”

Located on the south bank of Willow Gully, one mile up a dirt road, northeast of Red Bluff Road at Kirby, the cemetery was established in 1851 with the death of Mary Richardson Harris. David McFaddin, who fought in the Battle of San Jacinto, is believed to be buried there. The property and surrounding land passed through various families, including the McFaddin and Hammer families, until the land was donated to Harris County in 1993 by the Friendswood Development Co.

Though the cemetery is under the conservatorship of nearby Armand Bayou Nature Center, it is kept up by the cemetery association, which secured the designation as a Historic Texas Cemetery in 2010. However, Epperson said in recent years the dirt road leading to the cemetery had deteriorated and become impassable when it rained, and hogs were digging up the ground.

The county recently installed fencing around the property to prevent wildlife from causing damage and has been working on regrading the road to improve drainage and maintain its integrity, at a total cost of $23,000.

“Commissioner (Jack) Morman recognizes the historical value of this site; so we were already looking at different ways to improve it,” Precinct 2 Parks Director Kyle Kelley said in an email. “The weather was making it difficult for us to evaluate the site and come up with a plan. After it cleared up, we were able to team up with Ms. Epperson to come up with the best and quickest solution for preserving the cemetery.”

Epperson praised Kelley for his support of their efforts to protect and preserve the one-acre cemetery, where two of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300” – David Harris and Samuel Isaacks – are also buried, along with several generations of their families and others. Harris was the brother of John Richardson Harris, after whom Harris County is named. Epperson’s half brother is a descendent.

“Old 300” refers to settlers who received land grants as part of Stephen F. Austin’s contract in Texas when it was under Mexico, according to the Texas Historical Commission.

In addition to Epperson, Dawn Hammer, a descendent of Nicholas and Celestine Hammer, who were buried there in the late 1800s, and of John B. Hammer, who once owned the property, have been lobbying for the improvements.

“It’s history,” Dawn Hammer said. “To me it goes beyond just that my family is there. These are the people that settled here originally. They are the ones who fought for Texas independence.”

As well as keeping up the grounds, the cemetery association, which counts about a dozen active members, has identified some of the many unmarked graves, and with the limited funds from donations and the sale of Jean West’s booklet about the cemetery, provided headstones.

Epperson isn’t done. She hopes to persuade the county to take up an offer of $10,000 from an anonymous donor to name the surrounding parkland David Harris Historic Park. And at 90 years old, she hopes someone will step up and take over her position as chair of the association.

How to protect and preserve historic cemeteries

Preservation Maryland is conducting a study to document the architecture and history of public K-12 schools built in Maryland before 1980 . Maryland’s historic schools tell a profound story about the history of our state and are intrinsically interconnected with the communities in which they reside. The structures themselves are the physical vestiges and reminders of how we ha ve approached education and grappled with complex and challenging issues , from managing growth to racial integration and beyond. This project will provide a framework for evaluating the architectural and historic significance of the state’s public schools and a roadmap for future preservation activities.

How to protect and preserve historic cemeteries

09/27/2021
By Elly Colmers Cowan

Action Alert: Call on the Senate to Support Federal HTC

Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee passed infrastructure budget reconciliation legislation that includes provisions to expand the federal Historic Tax Credit. Unfortunately, current negotiations with leadership to reduce the cost and scope of the bill means that all historic tax credit provisions are in jeopardy.

How to protect and preserve historic cemeteries

08/16/2021
By Preservation Maryland

Commentary: State Park Investment Commission Vital As Visitorship Soars

Preservation Maryland applauds Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones for the creation of the new State Park Investment Commission. With visitorship reaching all-time highs in the last year, there has also been an unprecedented strain on the current state parks and their resources. Chaired by former Governor Parris N. Glendenning, the new commission will be tasked with making recommendations for improvements of current parks and the need for new parks in “recreational deserts.”

How to protect and preserve historic cemeteries

Historic Greenmount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland. Flickr user Angi English.

Official Statement: Historic Cemeteries Should be Protected and Preserved

11/30/2018
By Nicholas A. Redding

In light of ongoing debate over the development of several historic cemeteries across the state, including the Christopher Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland, Preservation Maryland Executive Director Nicholas Redding issued the following statement:

Historic cemeteries, like historic buildings and landscapes, provide critical connections between our past and future. Cemeteries literally contain the physical remnants – human remains – of our past. Cemeteries are evocative and powerful places that speak to descendants and casual visitors equally.

These silent and serene places are also worthy and deserving our respect and continued vigilance. Paving over cemeteries is never an acceptable or appropriate way to honor or preserve our historic burial grounds.

Moving forward, Preservation Maryland will continue to support the preservation of our state’s historic cemeteries. Whether through our partnership Six-to-Fix project with the Coalition for the Protection of Maryland Burial Sites or our planned project with the Maryland State Highway Administration to document historic cemeteries in a first-of-its-kind GIS database, we are committed to taking real and substantive action to protect these places.

We also believe that the state and jurisdictions across it should work proactively to protect historic cemeteries and make it clear that development of places made hallowed with human remains are not appropriate for development.

Nicholas A. Redding · Executive Director

Nicholas A. Redding is Preservation Maryland’s Executive Director and between announcing major organizational updates, he often blogs about Maryland and Civil War history.

Legislation has been introduced in the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates by Senator Susan Lee (D-16) and Delegate Sara Love (D-16) that would protect Morningstar Moses Cemetery and Hall (MMC) in Cabin John, Montgomery County, from destruction by the proposed widening of the Capital Beltway as part of the I-495/I-270 toll-lane project. The companion bills are Senate Bill 960 and House Bill 1373, “Public Private Partnerships-Cultural Preservation.”

The MMC is in the African American community of Gibson Grove, which was established by formerly enslaved people in the 1880’s. Project maps show some graves and parts of the Moses Hall Foundation are within the “Limits of Disturbance” of the proposed highway construction. The Maryland Historical Trust has determined that the MMC is historically significant and would be adversely affected by the widening of the Capital Beltway under the proposed I-495/I-270 toll-lane P3. Descendants, community members, and preservationists are trying to protect these important historic sites.

If enacted, the bill would prohibit the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) from acquiring a right-of-way or exercising eminent domain for a highway project that adversely affects such sites unless the General Assembly approves the development of the project.

A Phase Developer has been selected by MDOT to begin pre-development work on Phase 1 of the P3. The Moses Hall and Cemetery are in the path of Phase 1. If the bill passes, it would create one more obstacle to the implementation of Phase 1. It would not only protect African American cemeteries and cultural sites from destruction that would result from the highway widening, but could also hinder the progress of the P3.

Map of Proposed Construction Zone

How to protect and preserve historic cemeteries

The bill is currently in the Rules Committees of both the House and Senate. When one or both committees take action to refer the bill to a standing committee for consideration, we will provide an update in our newsletter. We will include contact information so you can write the committee chairs and members to express support for the bill, request a hearing, and a favorable report on the bill to the full House and Senate.

Early History of the Moses Hall and Cemetery

Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88, the official name of the Morningstar Moses Cemetery and Hall, is a chapter of the Order of Moses. The Order of Moses was a Post-Civil War benevolent society set up by formerly enslaved individuals, which used membership dues to provide financial help, burials, and social support to African Americans during segregation.

The cemetery was established in 1885; there were over 70 burials between1894-1977. Moses Hall, a small lodge that hosted chapter meetings and community social gatherings adjoins the cemetery, and remains of the Hall’s foundation are still evident. The Gibson Grove church was formally established in 1898 on adjacent land. The church has been unused since a 2004 fire.

Construction of the Beltway Divided the Community

The Capital Beltway was built through Gibson Grove in the early 1960’s, dividing the Moses Cemetery and Hall from the Gibson Grove Church — now located on opposite sides of the Beltway. The original construction of the Beltway divided the community; the proposed widening with four additional toll lanes under the I-495/I-270 P3 would have dire consequences.

It threatens further encroachment on this historic African-American community, the cemetery and burial grounds, and the perpetration of another racial injustice at a time when the pursuit of environmental justice is a top national priority.

Members of Maryland’s Congressional Delegation sent a letter to the Federal Highway Administration urging them to avoid physical impacts to the cemetery, hall, and church. The letter expressed concern that with a P3, the details of many design decisions would be in the hands of the private sector. The legislators wrote “…we risk once again committing the error of building roads without regard to the historic, cultural, and social values of vulnerable communities…”

State officials say they are trying to avoid the cemetery altogether but will reduce the impact if that is necessary. The State Highway Administration (SHA) archaeologist said the State tries to minimize damage to historical sites, but if that’s not possible will “mitigate” the impact, for example, by installing a historical marker.

How to protect and preserve historic cemeteries

Inauguration Day happens every four years on Jan. 20 (or, if that’s a Sunday, Jan. 21) to begin the recently elected US president’s term of office with the Inaugural Oath, as directed by the Constitution.

If your ancestors endorsed a presidential candidate, your family archives might contain campaign memorabilia—typically a grab bag of different types of items. You might find t-shirts, toys, bumper stickers, buttons and more. Take time to sort and properly preserve the artifacts you want to save for posterity in the proper containers, following these ten tips:

1. Buffer the paper.

Keepsakes like campaign flyers, posters and event tickets are often mass-produced using inexpensive paper and adhesives. They start to deteriorate almost as soon as they’re made. To prolong the life of these items and help prevent their toxic acids from staining and damaging other things in your collection, store them individually in acid-free, buffered folders, envelopes or plastic sleeves. The buffering agents help neutralize the acids in paper. Archival storage materials are available in a range sizes from suppliers such as Gaylord.com (check out our list of archival suppliers for more).

2. Separate stickers.

Bumper stickers are often printed on paper or vinyl with an adhesive backing. The glue can cause the stickers to adhere to each other or to other materials, so it’s important to separate them and store them upright to minimize pressure. Place them in acid-free folders or use sheets of acid-free paper between stickers, and store them in an acid-free box or metal filing cabinet away from light and dust. The plastic material in vinyl bumper stickers can emit gasses harmful to photos and paper; be careful to store the stickers in a separate container.

3. Don’t wrap your artifacts in newspaper.

Newspaper ink can easily transfer to the object. Instead, use acid-free tissue paper and store in an archival cardboard box.

4. Let buttons breathe.

Metal campaign buttons will rust and corrode if you store them in a humid environment. They’re best preserved inside a breathable container, rather than inside a plastic bag or box where moisture can accumulate. Look for a shallow artifact box made of acid-free cardboard, or place buttons in individual compartments of a plastic parts box along with a few silica gel packets (also from an archival supplier) to absorb dampness. Separating the buttons also helps prevent scratching. Store the container away from any light that will fade printing.

5. Handle with care.

Campaign memorabilia was intended for temporary use. Plastic items, such as souvenir buttons, are made from highly unstable, cheap materials. Protect plastic buttons from chipping and staining by wearing clean gloves when handling them and wrapping them in acid-free tissue for storage. Avoid using commercial cleaners or solvents. As with other printed materials, store them away from light.

6. Protect plastics.

Don Williams, senior conservator at the Smithsonian Institution, notes that the “degradation of plastics is always under way, unstoppable and permanent.” He recommends three methods of storage for tissue-wrapped plastic items: on open shelving in a darkened area, inside acid-free boxes with fabric-covered ventilation holes, or inside a sealed container with oxygen and chemical absorbers such as Ageless oxygen scavenger or activated charcoal, available from archival suppliers.

7. Save signatures.

If your relative was fortunate enough to collect his candidate’s autograph, preserve the signature by storing it away from all light. Impromptu signatures are often made on scrap paper with any pen or pencil at hand, not usually created for longevity. To display the keepsake, Williams suggests placing the autograph in an acrylic display case that can be stored in the dark when not on view.

8. Keep newspapers in folders.

Newspaper publishers have printed millions of extra copies to announce election results. Like anything made with high-acid pulp paper, though, newspapers deteriorate quickly and easily stain adjacent items. Store souvenir papers flat and unfolded in an archival box made especially for newspapers. Separate individual issues by keeping them in large, acid-free folders. An inexpensive alternative is to purchase large sheets of acid-free board from a local art supply store and make your own archival folders. Store away from light, heat, pests and moisture.

9. Learn to like layers.

Protect any keepsake with layered storage. The first layer that encloses the item should be made from high-quality archival materials. This folder or sleeve can be placed inside an archival box. Finally, the box should be stored in a clean, dry, dark location with moderate temperature and humidity inside your home, such as an interior closet.

10. Create a collection.

Are you a political history junkie looking to expand your collection of American campaign memorabilia? Check out resources, price guides and collecting tips from the American Political Items Collectors organization and its affiliated Facebook groups. Warman’s Political Collectibles (Krause) is a colorful guide to collecting all kinds of political memorabilia, from coins and medals to toys, clocks and kitchenware.

A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

Get Your Free Essential Genealogy Research Forms

Sign up for the Family Tree Newsletter and receive 10 research forms as a special thank you!

Hidden in a corner tucked between a car wash on Medlock Bridge Road and next to homes in St. Ives Country Club is the historical Macedonia African Methodist Church Cemetery. This cemetery is the resting place for more than marked 50 graves, including 37 documented grave sites, and many more going unmarked. Many of those at rest were born prior to the American Civil War, and had lived and worked on the plantation of George Morgan Waters who owned most of what is now Johns Creek in the 1800s. An important aspect of this site is that it also includes the grave of April Waters, one of the first emancipated slaves in the state of Georgia.

It’s been nearly two years since we thanked members of our city’s leadership for initial steps taken to help protect and preserve the Macedonia Methodist African Church Cemetery. At the Johns Creek City Council Meeting held on November 16, 2020, unanimous approval was given for the city to pursue acquisition of the property in order to better preserve this historically important part of our community.

Many have contributed to the efforts to reach this point, from the Warsaw Historical Preservation Society and Joann Moore, friends and neighbors in the St. Ives community, and most recently with the help of the Johns Creek Historical Society. Of particular note is the involvement of Johns Creek resident Kirk Canady as a longtime proponent for the city’s recognition and involvement in protecting the Macedonia Methodist African Church Cemetery.

Preserve Johns Creek is proud to have been part of ongoing efforts to protect this historic site, having led efforts in January 2017 to commission a formal study (available at this link) to identify the extent of the cemetery in order to preserve its integrity.

Councilman Bradberry quickly made a motion to approve the resolution to acquire the Macedonia Cemetery property in order to protect and preserve it, and his motion was seconded by Councilwoman Endres, and echoed by Councilman Weaver. The resolution was unanimously approved by the Mayor and full City Council.

In discussion of the motion, Councilman Lenny Zaprowski’s comments were well stated. To paraphrase, he said, “For the memory of the people buried there, and the significance of this – the teaching opportunities for our future, etc., – this is bigger than us. This is a long-lasting thing, and it’s the right thing to do.”