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Looking at the East

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

By Jason Bowns
June 24, 2022

At all levels, the continuity of government institutions springs from the individual people who drive it forward and through the panoply of crises, conflicts and solutions which define each circuitous day.

One corner of the public sphere doesn’t make much noise, although its stakeholders are directly impacted by spending priorities and an inevitable necessity of ongoing maintenance. Some endure unspeakable neglect as policymakers forget or juggle more pressing priorities instead.

Time goes on as damage is done and done. Nature’s elements advance where human leadership wavers. This silent constituency finds an eternal home in America’s cemeteries. There, a crisis afflicts some of our country’s oldest burial sites. Neglect and apathy invite destruction of hand-carved funerary art, too. Each offer a unique lens into colonial America and our country’s first decades. Part of the reason, according to one report is, “The municipalities that inherit them often consider cemeteries a drain on the budget, and maintenance is infrequent at best.” 

New England cemeteries present an added complication that colonial gravesites often have both a footstone and headstone, offering twice as many opportunities for grave markers to fall, break or go missing. The body is placed between the headstone and footstone with feet facing towards the east so that the dead could “rise up and face the ‘new day’ (the sun) when ‘the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised.’”

At the Hartford-owned Soldiers Field Cemetery, a multitude of veterans’ final resting places endure “unmown grass, grimy headstones and poor drainage…Family members visiting graves said they would routinely find marble markers submerged in water, lying on the ground or hidden by weeds.” The daughter of one veteran who couldn’t even see her father’s stone after it literally sunk into the ground bluntly implored the Connecticut state capital city’s mayor by writing, “Is this how we treated the deceased and veterans? I want my father’s grave found.”

Hundreds of California cemeteries suffer a similar fate as “legions of long-forgotten somebodies lie just as desecrated beneath broken or absent headstones in overgrown, vandalized patches of dirt, with little hope of ever being remembered with dignity again.” One historian in the Golden State believes, “It’s a tragic commentary on our culture…Nobody gets outraged enough to change things because the dead are unimportant politically. They don’t vote.” Burials there include Gold Rush pioneers as well as black, indigent and Chinese settlers.

Houston’s Olivewood Cemetery in the southwest was so overgrown, “When Charles Cook first visited…he needed a machete to cut through overgrown brush that had sprouted there…pushing through a junglelike maze to admire the statue of an angel that sits at the site’s center.”

In the Sunshine State, archaeologists determined that an African-American cemetery is buried under a Clearwater parking lot. A few years earlier, cemeteries were already discovered underneath a Tampa high school while another, named Zion Cemetery, is covered by a public housing complex. Beyond these more recent discoveries, “a burial ground task force mobilized by the Florida Legislature in 1998 reported that 40 percent to 50 percent of the state’s cemeteries are neglected or abandoned.”

Alabama’s Lincoln Cemetery exclusively served as a burial space for African-Americans since its founding in 1907. Ultimately, “grass and weeds grew three feet high. People picked apart old, crumbling graves and took bones of the deceased.” Somewhere there are the remains of a Civil Rights activist named Aurelia Browder-Coleman who, along with her friend Rosa Parks, ended segregation on Montgomery’s buses. With Browder-Coleman’s headstone found just leaning against a random tree, it’s unlikely to be returned to her burial plot since no one knows where it goes.

Moving forward into tomorrow, what can civic leaders and citizens do? To help understand the scope of such a pervasive policy problem, one approach is to create a task force to develop factual findings and propose long term solutions. Having the resources to do that job is essential. Last year, the Florida governor did exactly that, signing a bill which created the Task Force on Abandoned African American Cemeteries whose activities were fully funded by the Florida Department of State.

Some jurisdictions have established specialized state historical cemetery commissions separate from a more generalized historical commission concept. For example, the Rhode Island State Historical Commission promotes best practices for communities to maintain historic cemeteries and is a resource for communities to find funding. Led by delegates from each county, this advisory commission makes recommendations for legislative reform to the Rhode Island General Assembly and maintains an active website with a public information registry. That database gives information about the Ocean State’s historic cemeteries, allowing searches for specific graves accompanied by geographical finding aids.

Drew Smith is a college campus librarian researching records to identify African-Americans in what was Tampa’s Zion Cemetery, buried when commercial warehouses were built. For Smith, there’s this impetus: “We die twice. We die when our physical body dies, but we also die when the last person speaks our name. We can bring these people back because we can begin talking about them and speaking their names again.”

Author: Jason Bowns is a proud graduate of New York University and earned his Master in Public Administration degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Inspector General training program. A certified social studies teacher, Bowns has worked in a variety of educational settings and is especially interested in juvenile justice, penology, and public sector ethics. Contact him at [email protected].

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