Protecting Florida's Historic Cemeteries
This Halloween explore, learn about and take part in preserving our state's unique historic cemeteries
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.- F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald's epitaph was the last line of the The Great Gatsby One of America's great writers, his final resting place is in a historic cemetery in Maryland surrounded by high rises, strip malls and near a highway.
Individuals and groups from around the state are working hard to protect Florida's historic cemeteries and keep them from the inappropriate development that mars Fitzgerald's final resting place. Florida contains a tremendous diversity of historic cemeteries, and these outdoor museums provide symbols and clues to people lost to history and the reality of their lives.
Cemeteries are a catalyst for empathy and awareness for the people who came before us. Here are three ways you can take part in caring for a historic cemetery near you.
1. Explore a historic cemetery near you
Experiencing these historic resources is a first step in conservation. The beauty of cemeteries is they don't just tell the stories of the rich and the powerful, or the winning side of history. In each historic cemetery a variety of stories are told.
Look for symbolism - a stone lamb on a grave often symbolizes the loss of a child and reflects Christian beliefs. Laurel leaves on a headstone represent victory, eternity, immortality and chastity. Seen in ancient time as a symbol of victory, a laurel wreath can symbolize victory over death. Obelisks are representative of a ray of sunshine, draw the eye toward heaven and thus speak of life after death. There are many good handbooks on grave stone symbolism. Here's a quick online reference.
There is much a historic cemetery can tell you about the culture and the people who once lived there. See if you can find the oldest marker in the cemetery. What was going on in American History at this time? Your cemetery will tell the stories of wars, disease outbreaks and local tragedies.
Look closer. African American burial traditions can include leaving shells and broken plates and bottles on a grave. The story of segregation can be told through segregated cemeteries. The tale of social standing can also be told. Look for segments of the cemetery that don't appear to have markers. Are there dips in the ground? Most historic cemeteries have unmarked graves which may have been part of a potter's field, where the poor or indigenous were buried. Or the empty spaces may have been graves originally marked with wooden markers since lost.
Check in on your neighborhood cemetery this month! How do things look? Is there damage from Hurricane Irma? Are the grounds well maintained? Find a site and make a report. It's easy!
3. Work to preserve the cemetery for the future
Check if your cemetery is listed on the Florida Master Site File. If it is, you can file an update on the status of the site. If it isn't, adding it to the Master Site File officially adds the cemetery to Florida's historical record. The Guide to the Historical Cemetery Form, as well as the Historical Cemetery Florida Master Site File form is available online.
This year I've been working to add my historic family cemetery in Holmes County to the Florida Master Site File. It's been wonderful to work with family members, review our history and know that the location of this rural cemetery will be recorded into the future.
Cemetery ownership and maintenance can be a complex issue. If you'd like to do more for your local cemetery a good first step is to contact the Florida Public Archaeology Network. They offer Cemetery Resource Protection Training around the state.
Quick guidelines for working to preserve a historic cemetery:
Know the laws - There are specific state and federal protections for cemeteries and burial grounds.
Headstones - To protect historic headstones, never do rubbings of the inscription. Don't try to repair damaged headstones yourself and never use bleach to clean a headstone. The National Park Service recommends using water and a soft-bristled brush, or a mild chemical called D-2.
Maintenance - Lawnmowers, weed eaters and other equipment should not come in contact with headstones.
- Please be thoughtful when you are cleaning up a historic cemetery. Shells, toys and other items may be grave articles and protected. Also, historical vegetation may be part of historic cemetery traditions and are also protected.
Please share with us your stories of working to preserve historic cemeteries throughout the state - and thank you for working to save Florida's extraordinary history and heritage!
Melissa Wyllie is the Executive Director of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, the non-profit dedicated to protecting Florida’s extraordinary history and heritage. Follow her on Twitter at @MSWyllie. She is pictured at the grave of Alexander Hamilton in Manhattan.