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Adopted Cemeteries

Graveyards, Documents Of History
- introduction by Steve Glasgow

Crucial pieces of a town or city's past can be found scattered around the country side in often hidden -- sometimes forgotten -- century-old family graveyards. Old gravestones hold important information about families in the years past. The markers yield insights into genealogy, settlement patterns, social status and the custom of burying relatives on family grounds.

It's an important chapter of our history. It was a part of our culture ... but sometimes, the land passes hands and nobody even knows it's there. Documenting these sites would allow researchers to look for family histories. It also would alert developers who might otherwise overlook the sites, which can be overgrown.

The 19th-century Southern tradition of burying relatives on family land has long since faded away as customs changed and family farms gave way to subdivisions. As time rolls on, the small fenced in cemeteries contain tall trees, brush piles and rubbish. A century of weather has worn away the writing on several tombstones.

It makes some leery. But things like that intrigue me. Ownership records for some spots of ground have been lost over the years. Official records just show them as unknown. Historians have been finding dozens of new sites that come to their attention. Although such sites are not considered legally untouchable, court orders are required to move the abandoned cemeteries. We have a lot of unknown cemeteries out there. It's so important that we find them, so we can protect them. There's a lot of research that can be developed out of something like this.

The tradition of burying family members on farms or plantations appears to be more common in the South than in other parts of the county. That's precisely because of the way the South was settled. Unlike the more populated North, where early towns and churches sponsored cemeteries, the more sparsely settled South featured plantations and large family farms that generally kept neighbors farther apart.

In addition, churches in the North tended to be more organized in earlier times. By contrast, the South had a strong custom of itinerant preachers passing through communities, but not founding churches. The practice of burying relatives on family land began to decline in the late 1800s. But it actually remains legal to bury family members on private property in some states. There are no known records of how many such burials take place these days.

While "modern sites" may become important 100 years from now, we should focus on recording, recovering and protecting the older -- nearly forgotten -- family cemeteries. For those concerned with history, the simple act of remembrance may be a value in itself. At one level, cemeteries represent the memory of those who have gone on before. That's the tangible evidence that somebody existed. But the markers mean more than simply a physical record. It can be a reality check. It gives you a sense of your own mortality. It reminds you that you're only on this world for a certain time.

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