Graveyard restoration is satisfying work. It is not however easy work. So I want to help make it easier for you with a few tips to get you started.
Lots of people who are in this field are doing it because they happened upon a site in neglected condition and they were able to make a difference in a way that nobody was able to before. Most of the people who are in this field see the potential in often neglected sites that others do not see. If this could describe you, then know that there are definitely resources out there to help you in your project regardless of your budget. We want you to succeed!
Now without going into the difference between a burying ground and cemetery, I am going to refer to both as graveyards. Since we work in both cemeteries and burying grounds, this list applies to both.
1. Who owns the Graveyard? So you found a graveyard that has been neglected and you want to find out why or you want to volunteer your time landscaping or cleaning it up. The first thing you need to do is find out who owns it and get permission to pursue improving it.
Graveyards can be city owned. They can be privately owned. They can be abandoned (noone owns them). They can even be undiscovered and technically someone owns the land but doesn’t know it is there.
The first thing I would do is Google it. However, if no answer comes up I would call the Department of Public Works in the city or town it is in. They will know if they do or do not own it. If the municipality doesn’t own it but doesn’t know who does, I would then call the Historical Society.
Sometimes just expressing concern is enough for someone to take responsibility but sometimes it takes more than that.
Either way, contact the owners and try to be polite. You don’t know why the place is the way it is. Maybe there are money issues, or it was left to noone in particular and they have been waiting for years for someone like you to help.
2. Is it on Google Maps? Anyone can add a location to Google Maps. If you go on maps and see that the site isn’t on it, you could add it. This will make it easier for volunteers to find it and will help families visit. You will want to do your research on its name before doing this. Some graveyards have been called multiple names and you will have to choose one to put on the map. Choose the commonly used name. You are going to want to be consistent with the name. It may take a while for it to be approved by Maps.
3. Get a sign. So you have permission to work in a graveyard and have found the proper channels to go down to get approval for the projects you want to do. Proper signage lets visitors know that the site is cared for.
Signs can be simple with just the name and date established. Some signs have rules, like “no gravestone rubbing” and “no dumping of trash”. Some have hours like “open sunrise to sunset”. Some have detailed histories. Some say who is caring for the site and how to contact them. Signage helps communicate how you expect people to treat the site going forward.
4. Give your site a Facebook Page or Facebook Group. Having a page specifically for the graveyard you are working on will help you recruit volunteers and raise interest. Do your best to post regularly so people see that your project is active.
Share your posts to local history groups.
5. Document those stones! Join Find a Grave or Billiongraves or even do it the old-fashioned way by making a paper map and a corresponding list of names. Trust me when I say future gravestone restorers will thank you for helping them know there are things missing and where out of place stones belong.
6. No Available Funds? Crowdfund! You probably won’t collect a fortune. Often you will collect enough to get started with small projects though. Also, you could look for small, local grants to get started.
7. Get an education. Attend workshops and join related groups.
If you are near where we work, we like having interns and volunteers and in exchange you learn some of the basic skills you will need for your projects.
If you join groups like The Association for Gravestone Studies and pay attention to opportunities to learn new skills, you can often find workshops that are inexpensive near you.
Read the book A Graveyard Preservation Primer by Lynette Strangstad. There is some common sense stuff in there that may help you get started. Get the most recent edition.
Read up on state and local laws and ordinances. This will help you know what to put on signs.
Before you even attempt to landscape a site yourself, you will need at least some instruction. There is more to think about with graveyard landscaping than you may think and you wouldn’t want to cut down historic plantings.
There is definitely a lot to know about gravestone preservation. You will need to know what materials are okay, how to assess a stone, and a long list of other things. Many of us have seen the results of well intentioned people using the wrong materials and techniques. Please seek out training before working on stones or hire someone with that training.
8. Recruiting volunteers. So you are ready to host your first cleanup. There is trash to pick up and volunteer shrubs to remove, etc. So who are you going to ask?
Try your Facebook followers, your friends, the Historical Society, the Scouts, the ROTC, the Rotary Club, environmental groups, and other community organizations.
No matter who you ask, try to make sure they are happy to be there so they want to keep volunteering. Bring water, sunscreen, and bug spray. Sometimes you can get donations of supplies from local hardware stores and other businesses.
9. Research the history of the site. Who is in it and what is unique about it? Knowing the history of the site will help you apply for National Historic Registry status which will help you apply for grants.
What stories can you find out to bring interest and show others how important it is not to lose the graveyard as a cultural resource? Try going beyond the stories everyone else tells. It is necessary, however. if it is an old burying ground, to point out founding families. If you want to get replacement veterans markers, you will want to know who the veterans are. Also, who are the artists, the business owners, the underepresented groups, the inventors? Was there an epidemic?
Who were the carvers? There are books on this topic.
10. Don’t give up on your project. This is where most projects fail. It gets difficult and people give up. But even if you just do one small thing everyday, it will make a difference to your site. I have met people about to stop but they chose to do one more thing instead and ended up meeting the right volunteer or coming across the right opportunity that ended up making a big difference and reignited their enthusiasm.
Invest in your volunteers. They need to know how to keep things going if you need to take a break or do something new. This may be the most important thing to do. It won’t take long for a site to return to the state you found it in.
I really hope this list helped you. It is in no way complete but should get you started. I wish you well on all your journeys and adventures. I hope someday you will remember back to when you started and you will help someone learn the things they need to know to succeed. We need to inspire one another. Graveyard restoration is satisfying work. It is not however easy work. Nothing worth doing is.