Thursday, October 28, 2021

Cemeteries - Stories of the Past

When was the last time you were at a cemetery? For many it was likely to bury a loved one- a family member or a dear friend. It’s likely that you didn’t look around at the other cemetery markers, unless they were family members, and think about the individuals who are represented by the marker.  Most of us wouldn’t consider a cemetery to be a garden or park, or that it may have been arranged based on political or social status. We tend to think of cemeteries as a final resting place for the dead, a place we might visit to pay respect and reflect upon a memory.

Preservation movements across the United States have begun to recognize the significant resources preserved in cemeteries; these are not simply the source of genealogical records, but they also represent important cultural sites on the regional landscape and their significance varies for different ethnic groups.  Unfortunately, they are threatened by development and neglect that is eradicating them from the landscape.  In rural areas family cemeteries were frequently located near a few trees or some other marker on the landscape that may no longer exist.  Recording the locations and data associated with cemeteries has become a preservation initiative for many groups at the local, state, and national level.

Figure 1- Rural cemetery marked by a black walnut tree and iron fence, Tioga County

In Pennsylvania, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has created a process in PA-SHARE for recording cemeteries in a Cultural Resources Geographic Information System (CRGIS).  The help page for this site will guide you in completing the required information. This office has also been involved in efforts to improve guidance for state agencies surrounding the treatment of cemeteries. This work was initially inspired by the discovery in 2016 of a cemetery on Arch Street in Philadelphia during a construction project.  The site was the location of burial grounds for the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia. The remains of more than 400 individuals dating to between 1700 and 1860 were recovered during an emergency salvage archaeology project conducted by volunteer archaeologists in the area. Unfortunately, this is just one example of cemeteries being lost in the historic record, only to be discovered “at the last minute” during a construction project.  

Protection of Native American cemeteries gained momentum in 1990 with the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Unfortunately, many grave sites were looted and destroyed before this Act went into effect, and some are still threatened by this criminal activity

Attention has grown within the African American community for finding, recording, and preserving their ancestral cemeteries. The Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds project is drawing attention to preservation of cemeteries and is specifically focused on honoring Pennsylvania’s United States Colored Troops (USCT), veterans of the American Civil War who fought in African American regiments. The Lincoln Cemetery in Cumberland County was recently placed on the county register of Historic Places. Twelve African American veterans of the U.S. Civil War, members of the U.S. Colored Troops, are interred here along with the remains of other members of the African American community dating back as early as 1862.  This cemetery was recognized as important to the community by members of the Vietnam Veterans of Mechanicsburg who took on the task of cleaning and restoring the overgrown cemetery. This is an excellent example of the local community recognizing the contributions and sacrifices of these soldiers and honoring their final resting place. 

The difficulty in tracing these individuals and African American cemeteries in general can be attributed to several factors.  Enslaved peoples were often buried in unmarked graves in remote areas, family members may have been sold, or for some, escaped via the underground railroad. Graves were sometimes marked with wooden staffs or in coastal areas, piles of shells delineated the burial. Often these types of markers were lost or decayed, leaving no trace of the grave itself and no record of the individual buried there.  After the Civil War, families often moved out of the area and future generations never returned. Cemeteries in more urban settings were equally as threatened by development and racist treatment of African American burial grounds. Segregated cemeteries didn’t receive the same treatment and respect as the more affluent cemeteries and were often the first sold by local governments. Historic records often indicate that graves were moved but have proven to be inaccurate at best. Oral histories preserved in the local communities have often been the best resource for preserving these burial grounds.

Figure 2- Henry S. Ward, Colored Troops Veteran, Mount Tabor Cemetery, Mount Holly Springs, Cumberland County

Archaeologists from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission recently met with the Friends of the Lebanon Cemetery in York, York County to discuss efforts for preserving this African American cemetery.  The cemetery was begun in 1872 but contains remains of individuals originally buried in other locations and moved to this site. Some graves were marked, but many were not. Community members have researched the family members who are buried here and have worked diligently at cleaning up the cemetery and recording data on head stones. Soil erosion on a steep hillside has led to damaged headstones and misplaced or buried markers.  The group was seeking assistance in locating unmarked graves and guidance for best practices in sharing their information. Staff from the SHPO’s office, The State Museum of Pennsylvania, and West Chester University toured the area and considered options for this group. West Chester University archaeologist Dr. Heather Wholey, and students suggested creating a detailed map of the graves along with the gravestone information as an initial step in this project.  Newer technology for identifying graves including the use of drones and remote sensing surveys were also discussed as possible options.  GroundPenetrating Radar (GPR) is a method employed by archaeologists to identify disturbances and anomalies in the soil.  It is a non-destructive method for mapping data into a GIS system which enables the identification of potential burials and provides a plan or map of the cemetery. 

Figure 3 Lebanon Cemetery, York

Recognizing cemeteries as cultural landscapes and the data that can be gleaned from them is an important effort in understanding our past.  Identifying the individuals, the communities and ultimately the cultures represented in each of these cemeteries is gaining recognition as a resource for archaeologists, historians, genealogists, and preservationists.  Cemeteries associated with communities that sprang up along the Underground Railroad show patterns of movement and cultural adaptation. Understanding the past of the underrepresented allows us to evaluate deeper social issues of injustice and racism. 

African American cemeteries have always represented significant places in African American society, but conditions did not allow these cemeteries to achieve the same prominent monuments as white cemeteries. They are now being recognized as significant monuments that serve to memorialize African American individuals and their contributions that are not recognized elsewhere in white history books.

Preserving cemetery records is vital for groups researching their community and individuals searching for their ancestors. Awareness of the significance of these documents is fundamental to this preservation effort. Archival institutions such as the Pennsylvania State Archives have the tools and technology necessary to preserve records for future generations.  Recent federal legislation was created to record and preserve African American cemeteries; this initiative will also help to unite resources for local community-led programs.

On October 30th, 2021, The State Museum of Pennsylvania will host the annual Workshops in Archaeology program as a virtual program. This year’s focus on African American stories revealed through archaeology and cemetery projects across the Commonwealth and mid-Atlantic will expand on this topic. Presentations by archaeologists and historians promise to raise awareness of the contributions made to Pennsylvania and the nation. Please join us for this informative event by registering at

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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