Giving new life to old cemeteries

Lost and abandoned cemeteries, some neglected for decades, are coming to light all over North Carolina.

The graveyards may have elaborate markers, weathered field stones or no visible signs above the ground. But under a newly strengthened state law, they all require special treatment to preserve both irreplaceable history and human remains.

Based on the work of a 2006 legislative commission, the state recently hired two full-time employees – an archaeologist and an archivist – to create the Cemetery Survey and Stewardship Program.

“As growth encroaches into these areas, we find more and more cemeteries that have been neglected,” program archaeologist Kevin Donald said.

In rapidly urbanizing counties, developers who encounter cemeteries must concentrate on altering plans or painstakingly moving graves before they can proceed with projects.

But the fast pace of growth still leaves people such as Ann Brosnahan, of Wake County, feeling as if they're fighting a single-handed battle to save the physical family and social history that rests in individual old graveyards.

“These are my ancestors here,” Brosnahan, 65, said at the tree-shaded 19th-century Finch family cemetery off Duraleigh Road that she has spent years preserving. “I don't know what's going to happen to it when I pass. I would like the county to take it over, or the state.”

Brosnahan struck out when trying to get county or state help for preserving the Finch cemetery and another family-connected site. Instead, she used her own money and labor, and that of family members, to put the cemeteries back in presentable shape.

Gathering information

The first task for archaeologist Donald and archivist Mary Hollis Barnes, the two-person staff of the Cemetery Survey and Stewardship Program, is to pull together decades of information on cemeteries put together by family members, amateur and professional historians, county employees, genealogists and lovers of funerary art.

“As far as the state actually providing funding for people to maintain their cemeteries, we just don't have the money to do that,” Donald said.

The new state push to create a comprehensive database rests on efforts going back to Works Progress Administration researchers in the 1930s. In 1978, state legislators asked each county to conduct surveys of its cemeteries and for a few years funded a part-time coordinator of their work.

To catch up with those efforts, Barnes and Donald have sent questionnaires to more than 230 organizations across the state to gauge who's still active in cemetery work.

In Wake County, that task was headed by Irene Kittinger, a Cary resident who has gained a reputation as the person to call for genealogists and developers alike. She and fellow history enthusiasts carried out surveys of county cemeteries, walking through and noting every stone, every name, every inscription. However, Kittinger said, many cemeteries have already been lost to development.

“It's been a history of the destruction of them,” Kittinger said. “The thing I can't understand is why people aren't more interested in the history and in what our forefathers had to go through to be where we are.”

State resources

The state survey's two employees are offering expertise and networking to the many public and private grave-tracking efforts.

“Depending on the nature of the call, we'll try to provide as much information as possible to the citizens,” said Donald, the archaeologist. “We'll assess the condition and we'll generally do a background search to see if there is any information in the archives.”

The state employees get requests for help from developers, land surveyors, title companies and city and county attorneys. In addition to the state effort, volunteers such as Jane Thurman field questions while concentrating on preserving sites such as Raleigh's city cemeteries.

“People are recognizing that cemeteries are important and that people are interested in them, no matter how small they are,” Thurman said.