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  • Writer's pictureFlorida Trust

This Halloween Explore, Learn About & Preserve our State's Unique Historic Cemeteries

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. - F. Scott Fitzgerald's epitaph

F. Scott Fitzgerald's epitaph was the last line of the The Great Gatsby. One of America's great writers, his final resting place in a historic cemetery in Rockville, Maryland, is near a highway surrounded by high rises and strip malls. Forty miles away in Baltimore, another American literary legend, Edgar Allen Poe, had not one but two graves, neither of which are absolutely correct. The originally unmarked grave now has a stone etched with the famous words, "Quoth the raven 'Nevermore.'"

The stories about these final resting places remind us how cemeteries are often an individual's final means of expression - outdoor museums that reflect facets of the true American experience. On Halloween perhaps we should take a page from history and remember the dead through caring for our historic cemeteries.

By the 9th century Christian tradition had absorbed a bit of Celtic tradition. All Saints Day (or All-hallows) on November 1 was preceded by All-hallows Eve, the precursor to our modern Halloween. In Mexico, Día de los Muertos remains a beautiful acknowledgement of the "symbiotic relationship between life and death."

And we can recognize that connection year round through working to preserve historic cemeteries. Florida contains a tremendous diversity of final resting places, including Native burial sites both on land and off shore. Individuals and groups from around the state are working hard to protect historic cemeteries from the inappropriate development that mars Fitzgerald's final resting place.

Cemeteries are a catalyst for empathy and awareness for the people who came before us and these outdoor museums provide symbols and clues to people lost to history and the reality of their lives.

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 represent 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 intro to symbolism, and here is a great book on cemetery symbolism if you'd like to do a deeper dive.

There is much a historic cemetery can tell you about the culture and the people who once lived there. Go visit a nearby historic cemetery and see if you can find the oldest marker there. What was going on in American history at this time? Your cemetery will likely 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.

2. Monitor hurricane damage

If you were in the path of Hurricane Ian, now is a good time to check in on your neighborhood cemetery! How do things look? Is there damage from Hurricane Irma? Are the grounds well maintained? Please share the post-Ian status of your local historic cemetery with us as part of our disaster recovery work. Let us know (please email if you are interested in doing this, and we will work with you on making the report.

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.

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.

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