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Cemeteries and Public History: Confederate Statues in Public Spaces

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Staci M. Zavattaro
November 12, 2020 

A statue of a Confederate soldier overlooked an Alabama courthouse for decades, until in the wee hours of a Friday evening, government officials began relocating the statue to a nearby cemetery. In Orlando, a similar pattern occurred in 2017 when a Confederate statue was removed from the city’s center and relocated to Greenwood Cemetery. According to data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, 114 Confederate symbols and statues have been removed throughout the United States after punctuating events such as the 2015 massacre in a Charleston church, along with the murder of George Floyd. While that is progress, the Center reports there are still 1,747 Confederate monuments remaining.

Removing statues means they must go somewhere—either in storage or on display in another public space. Cemeteries seem to be a popular choice, and here I explore the implications for public administration: 1) shifting the role of cemeteries in public life; 2) engaging in public history discussions; and 3) using tax dollars to fund maintenance even when “removed” to a public cemetery.

First, cemeteries play both pastoral and practical functions in American life. Cemeteries, of course, serve as central locations to manage the dead and to remove potential diseases from city centers. But, as Eggener explains, cemeteries also are in this odd space of being both past-oriented and forward-looking—they are places to bury loved ones but also as living, breathing entities vital in public life.

Moving statues to cemeteries harkens to the Civil War era, whereby post-war there was a need to bury soldiers from both sides. (Think Arlington National Cemetery for one visible example.) In his article, Gammage explains the dead from the Civil War removed the illusion of a peaceful, quiet death, as many soldiers who survived were physically and emotionally wounded—and the war-dead often suffered. After the Civil War, burying Confederate soldiers and establishing memorials was a narrative of the Lost Cause movement as a way to re-tell the Southern version of events and erase White supremacist underpinnings of the conflict.

Relocating statues to cemeteries is another way to change the narrative. Cemeteries themselves are becoming the contested spaces where historical narratives morph—statues in cemeteries could be seen as related to mourning rather than a monument to the Lost Cause and preserving a White supremacist history. In other words, their placement here could be another way to change the narrative surrounding the statues, changing the focus to mourning rather than venerating a Lost Cause narrative.

This relates directly to the second point about cemeteries as active spaces for public history discussions. Living histories, Veterans Day, Memorial Day—all are active ways cemetery administrators engage in telling stories about death, memorial and mourning. As statues move into cemeteries, there should be discussions about the relationship between death, politics, racism and history.

For instance, having a Confederate portion of a cemetery, along with removing statues, is an inherent political act. Per Federal law, no Confederate soldiers were allowed burial in National cemeteries until 1906. Sometimes there were Confederate sections in national cemeteries, but grave markers were purposefully made plain so there was no distinction between those buried Confederates and civilians. Eventually, volunteers and private organizations took over burial duties. In the South, women usually led the charge for memorials, forming Ladies’ Memorial Associations to relocate Confederate soldiers to burial grounds focused on their heroics, along with erecting statues in more civic settings. Today, the statues have taken on another political layer in the wake of racist violence again Black Americans. Taking these discussions to the cemetery becomes a public administration question given the need to address—or not address—the history and context surrounding the statue and Confederate burials (if there are any) within the cemetery.

Related to the third point about tax dollars, according to a report from the Equal Justice Initiative, at least $40 million has gone toward preserving Confederate statues and other memorials such as homes and parks. Palmer and Wessler further break down some of the costs in their investigative report: $100,000 per year for preserving Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis home and museum in Mississippi; the same location received $17.2 million in federal aid after Hurricane Katrina; $600,000 to Confederate Memorial Park in Alabama; $1.1 million to A.H. Stephens State Park in Atlanta, named after vice president of the provisional Confederacy.

Some cities are relying on private donations to fund statue removal, as is the case in Richmond with the city ideally coming out cost-neutral on the endeavor. In New Orleans, the city paid $2.1 million to remove statues throughout the city. While many of the costs were for the physical removal, others went toward safety protections at the site for the workers and protestors. So as statues are coming down, public entities continue to have some of the monetary costs, especially if those statues end up in other public spaces such as a cemetery.

As more statues are removed and placed in cemeteries, the spaces will change, and public administrators will have to think about how to tackle the emerging narratives and increased attention to cemetery life and death.

 Author: Dr. Staci M. Zavattaro is associate professor of public administration at the University of Central Florida. She serves as editor-in-chief of Administrative Theory & Praxis. Her latest book is City Sextons: Tales from Municipal Leaders, which explores local government cemetery managers.

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