Guest editorial: Rest in peace?

State agency encourages citizens to protect historic grave markers
by David Blanchette, Dawn Cobb
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

Spring has sprung and that often leads people to clean closets, tidy up their yards, and tackle projects like clearing their land of debris. Too often that debris might be old, broken grave markers.

Small family cemeteries, typically in rural areas of Illinois, are the final resting places of people from the 19th and early 20th centuries. As land values increase and more land is sought for agriculture or development use, these small burial grounds can sometimes be looked upon as obstacles, especially if the current property owner has no connection to those buried there.

Grave markers represent the last physical identity of the person buried there. When a grave marker is moved, the grave site becomes invisible on the landscape and the cemetery eventually becomes forgotten. When these forgotten cemeteries are re-discovered through construction or agriculture, for example, they become a problem for the landowner or developer because state law obligates them to either repair the damage and preserve the graves, or work with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) to have the remains removed by professional archaeologists and skeletal analysts. Preserving the graves in place is less costly than disturbing a cemetery.

The IHPA reminds people that removing any part of a cemetery without state permission is a violation of the Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act. However, with a permit issued by the agency and some initial guidance, these small family cemeteries can be preserved and still accommodate land use in the surrounding area.

The IHPA’s cemetery webpage at www.illinoishistory.gov/cemetery is a good place to learn more about cemetery preservation. It includes a free download of the Illinois Historic Cemetery Preservation Handbook: A Guide to Basic Preservation. This handbook details the steps involved with researching a cemetery, from locating it on a map or the landscape to identifying different types of markers. It also helps readers develop a preservation plan. In addition, the IHPA has teamed with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to present lectures and workshops on cemetery preservation. Presenters talk about the history of cemeteries in Illinois and how to understand what you see in them when you visit, and provide basic and advanced cemetery preservation training.

It only takes a few dedicated volunteers to start the process. People of all ages can contribute, whether clearing vegetation from the cemetery or cleaning markers to maintaining the ground. Most of the work can be accomplished using basic and affordable supplies and good old fashioned elbow grease, and local civic groups like the Boy or Girl Scouts can provide service hours.

The IHPA reminds those interested in taking on such a project that cemeteries located on private property can be accessed only by permission. If you must cross another person’s land to get to the cemetery, you must also ask their permission. Landowners may be willing to allow access to a cemetery if they are asked first and fully understand the intent, be it for genealogical research or cemetery preservation.