Cemeteries and their Living Communities, and Archaeology

Knowing I would spend the actual Day of Archaeology doing moderator duties for this very website, I asked my Twitter followers what archaeological topic they would like me to share for my post.

The clear winner was discussing my project at a local cemetery. This is the second cemetery I’ve documented, both initiated to meet my teaching goals for my field school students, but the Vestal Park cemetery has been different because it has a community attached to it. Since Spring 2015, I’ve slowly been documenting the 19th century section of the cemetery with over 300 stones, in between my various jobs and writing my dissertation.

At this stage, almost two years later, I have gotten almost all of the documentation done. By scheduling weekly field school activities and offering surveying methods workshops to other graduate students and archaeologists in the area, I was able to assemble a complete map and photographs of every stone in the first 14 months. Still, only about 1/2 of the stones have been documented using our detailed form. I’m hoping to go back this fall to finish documenting as much as possible with the technology available to me, as long as I can find several days to go do it on my own.

As you can imagine, over the past two years I’ve learned a few things about cemetery research that I think are worth sharing, including principles I’ve developed from my experience.

Research in Active Cemeteries

When I started my project, I already had a relationship with the Town Historian and with several members of the local Historical Society, so identifying an appropriate setting was not difficult. This cemetery has a paid caretaker and is in a nice town, surrounded by businesses and homes. It is in no way neglected or forgotten. In short, it’s not the historic cemetery you may be imagining, with vines growing and spooky owl sounds. There are people visiting every day, including fairly often funeral processions, because the historic section is one small square of a larger, active cemetery. This place has an existing community of regular visitors and caretakers, as well as people who are just passing through during an emotionally difficult time. Your presence is noticed, and it can be hard to explain.

In a cemetery, there are loved ones who exist both in real life and in historical memory that are physically involved in the work you are undertaking. They are under your feet. Tread lightly.


Grave at cemetery for drowned man

This gravestone marks the burial of a man who drowned trying to save another man. These sorts of inscriptions grab the attention of visitors and amateur historians, wondering what the person’s life was like. This man and others buried here are still active in this place.

Setting project goals at an active cemetery is very different from at a small historic family plot, which is what I was more familiar with before undertaking this project. No matter what, you are likely to need to get in touch with a groundskeeper or local government official responsible for maintenance to consult on what is appropriate. The main concern of the groundskeepers is to keep the area safe, tidy, and make sure the ground and stones are stable; historical research may be welcome, but it is not the priority.

Follow the lead of the caretakers on how to physically move through the space.

Proceed in goal-setting and discussing your project with people as though each and every person there has been recently buried. Settle on a group of collaborators to start with, and ask them if they are willing to share their stories and their vision for the project. There may be family members involved along with the groundskeeper, representative of the property owner, members of local historical interest groups, and any affiliated church. In my project, my meetings were usually limited to the groundskeeper and the Town Historian, but sometimes two members of the local historical society participated as well. Having other historically-minded folks involved motivated me to come up with ways to use the data I was collecting to tell the stories they had become passionate about through researching the buried individuals. But my dreams and my means were on very different scales.

Make modest promises and keep them. Be honest about your timeline and your limitations.

At least in my area, most of the people who are interested in public archaeology work and local history are retired folks of some means. Strangely enough this means that they often have more time and energy to dedicate to this particular project than I do, and so my timeline could easily appear to be sluggish from their point of view. It’s hard, and not really appropriate, to try to explain why it takes a year for my small crew to do something that would take a 20-person historical society a week, my professional training and equipment notwithstanding.

If I could start over again, I would be clearer about what I could accomplish in a short period of time. I would also push harder for information about what programs my collaborators used on the computer, what technology they were comfortable with, and what things they wanted me to know. Because I had existing relationships with most of my collaborators, I did not complete a formal Memorandum of Agreement at the outset, and that process may have helped me to avoid continually helping people open digital files, locate photographs, and provide other information technology help. I would have perhaps sought funding/help for a nicely hand-drawn map to accompany the data table and point plot map that I created.

Simple products are better for certain stakeholders than beautiful or “cool” ones.

Despite the relatively low profile of this project, I have garnered more public interest in it than any other I’ve done, in large part due to the genealogical community. Just a few weeks ago my PhD advisor got an email from a woman asking for more information about her ancestor who was buried there, and that’s just one example. Word travels fast among the diner-breakfast crowd here, and I am sure it seemed more than a little weird that I would use fancy mapping equipment to measure stones that won’t go anywhere any time soon. Still, some of the cemetery’s dead are known around that same community, and beloved friends buried nearby only adds to the interest in the space being deemed important enough to be studied by an archaeologist.

Cemeteries are valued in many layered ways, including as active spaces of mourning and as places of local pride in past residents. Engage with peoples’ connection to the place instead of inventing a new connection.

I’m sure you will hear more from me about this later! I have more to say and more to do.