By Ethan Rudd
Walk down little used paths though fields, gravel lanes, or small country villages and you’ll find them—the generations-old stones that serve to keep the memory of the dead.
Cemeteries can be taken for granted. They can be found everywhere people live and people aren’t likely to think about them until they actually need a cemetery. When people do visit cemeteries or buy grave plots, they expect their local cemeteries to be taken care of.
Inactive cemeteries that no longer generate revenue through grave sales can be abandoned. When they are, city, village or township officials become responsible for maintaining them. According to the Ohio Revised Code that means keeping cemeteries mowed, but some concerned citizens say that’s not nearly enough.
Also, local governments may have limited resources when they inherit the responsibility of caring for additional cemeteries. It may be important to save what’s left of some cemeteries because corresponding records may be lost or destroyed over time—that means the memory of a person may just disappear, which provides significant roadblocks for historians and people interested in genealogy.
These issues are especially significant in rural cemeteries. Often, in rural areas, local governments have less to spend on cemetery upkeep. In some places, cemeteries have changed hands from the care of churches and religious groups to the care of township, village and city officials, who may only have enough resources to keep cemeteries mowed. As a result, inactive cemeteries have been neglected and even active cemeteries show sign of neglect.
Restoring cemeteries can also be a complex process. Certain types of headstones can only be fixed using certain products, and some headstones are in such bad shape that they require the attention of experts or stonemasons.
Restoration work is sometimes left to concerned citizens and volunteers. It appears that there are no quick and easy fixes when it comes to maintaining neglected cemeteries.
New Richmond: Reason for Concern
After Bill Marsh retired from IBM as senior programs manager he looked for things to do in his village to stay active. In New Richmond that meant help keeping the riverfront clean. Eventually, the village administrator and the mayor asked Marsh if he’d be interested in looking at Greenmound Cemetery, a 15-acre plot situated on a sloping hill at the edge of the village. It has been active since the mid 1800s.
When Marsh and other volunteers explored the cemetery, they found toppled headstones and crumbling roads. In some places, they couldn’t tell where some of the stones were supposed to be.
Naturally, Marsh went to village hall to search through records so that he could match names with plots. “That’s when I found their records were in terrible shape,” Marsh said. “They lost a lot of records.” A fire in the 1970s destroyed some of the records, and the surviving records were not maintained properly, according to Marsh. Some of the surviving records have names but no locations.
“I spent a lot of time getting queries from people wanting to find their relatives,” Marsh said. “In some cases, I dug through and I found things for them. But in other cases, the records aren’t there.”
To help preserve what’s left of the existing records, Marsh offered to digitize what he could.
“That’s a big part of what needs to be done,” Marsh said. “To continue that process of trying to match up a location of a monument within the cemetery and assigning it an address—a location.”
Additionally, he did his best to try to plot out the village’s cemeteries digitally. He did this, however, without survey equipment on hills. Still, the process helped give him a rough estimate about how large the cemeteries are and how individual plots fit within them.
Eventually, Marsh and other volunteers formed a village cemetery board.
“I started going every time they had an interment,” Marsh said. “I was looking at the traffic flow going through the cemeteries and the problems associated with that.”
To ensure better future practices, Marsh created a 25-page document of systems and procedures for the cemetery. “I tried to set some rules down to follow and created some manual documents to fill out when they had interments,” he said.
But the future is still uncertain. A village cemetery levy failed in 2014. Marsh ended up being the last member of the cemetery board. The workload went beyond what he could do and he was unable to secure software to further pursue his digitization efforts.
The situation has improved. Marsh estimates he and other volunteers reset nearly 800 stones, although many of those were not permanent fixes—these people are volunteers, not stone masons or restoration experts. Some of the road in Greenmound was repaved.
According to Marsh, more permanent fixes require more investment. “You really need professional people to come in and put in an appropriate foundation underneath (headstones),” he said. “When you’re talking about some of the weights of these stones, they’re very big.”
He’s worried maintenance functions might be neglected in the future, too. The Ohio Revised Code stipulates minimum standards for maintaining cemeteries, but responsibilities other than mowing aren’t spelled out. “That’s nowhere near what you should do,” Marsh said.
In April, Marsh ended his activity as a volunteer. “I can’t continue to beat a dead horse,” he said.
Franklin Township: Lost and Found
Mt. Olive cemetery looks like what you’d imagine an old cemetery should look like. The cemetery is hidden down a country lane, through a field and in the woods. Yucca plants grow in bunches beneath massive cedar trees. A blanket of orange and brown leaves cover the plot.
There’s also the fact that Mt. Olive cemetery is old: it dates to 1795, nearly a decade before Ohio became a state.
But it didn’t always look like that way until recently. It had been all but forgotten because it became landlocked by private properties. A road that was plotted to the cemetery was never developed and it became out of sight. As a result, the cemetery became overgrown.
More recently, however, someone brought it to the attention of Franklin Township trustees and the Franklin Township Historical Society that there were headstones in the woods.
Franklin Township Historical Society president Jim Shafer initially assumed there were thirty or forty headstones in Mt. Olive. Instead, he and other volunteers found more than 300 graves on a plot of land that was much bigger than it was originally predicted to be.
Shafer and the volunteers spent six months removing dead trees, probing the ground for buried headstones, up righting headstones and trying to match names with graves.
Stone by stone, the cemetery was reclaimed from the forest. “When you start up righting the stones it’s like flowers coming up out of the ground,” Shafer said.
In the end, the volunteers reseeded the plot and erected a split rail fence. Shafer estimates the cemetery had been abandoned for 60 years. “We have to start somewhere,” Shafer said. “The sad part is we’re starting 80 years too late. We’re trying to get copies of deeds for the cemeteries, plots of the cemeteries and any information we can find.”
The project was funded by the Franklin Township Historical Society and it showed what could be accomplished. Last year, Franklin Township passed a cemetery levy, which will help continue restoration work.
That work is needed, according to Shafer. There are 10 cemeteries in the township and only three of those are still active. That means there are seven cemeteries that require maintenance that don’t generate revenue from grave sales.
Smyrna Cemetery is one such cemetery. “It was in dire need of restoration work,” Shafer said. Headstones were leaning or had fallen over. Additionally, after probing the ground at Smyrna, volunteers found that the cemetery plot was larger than what they had anticipated.
A section of the cemetery that had become overgrown and not maintained ended up concealing buried headstones, including the headstone of a black World War II veteran. There are also multiple black Civil War veterans buried in Smyrna.
There were also headstone bases with no stones. “Apparently, there had been a previous restoration many, many years ago and in order to stabilize some of the bigger stones they busted up smaller stones and used them as foundation material,” Shafer said. “It really disgusted me.”
Once again, the volunteers did their round of restoration work. One of the biggest challenges was trying to match stones that had been moved with their original locations—the records for some of the inactive cemeteries no longer exist.
Now, Shafer says they have enough work to keep them busy for the next five years.
“This is our home,” Shafer said. “These are our cemeteries. We put monuments up so we don’t forget people. But we do forget.”
Ripley: Some help, some hope
History is important to the village of Ripley. Industry has left this part of the river valley, and tobacco—the valley’s cash crop—is no longer a cash crop. Instead, Ripley hopes to attract business through tourism now. The small village boasts several museums, including the houses of abolitionists John Parker and John Rankin. Preserving what remains of the past is important.
“What we have is our history,” Ripley Heritage Inc. president Betty Campbell said. “That’s what we have to utilize.”
Ripley Heritage Inc. is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the Rankin House and the Ripley Museum. Campbell became interested in doing restoration work in the Old Ripley Cemetery, a small plot of land on the banks of Redoak Creek hidden on a gravel road behind a row of houses. Three Revolutionary War veterans are buried there, including the founder of Ripley, James Poage.
Headstones rest on high creek banks at Old Ripley Cemetery. In some spots toppled headstones huddle together. In the center of the cemetery, headstones stick out of an old tree trunk.
It all seemed like too much for Campbell and a modest group of volunteers, so she ended up contacting Misti Spillman, the director of the Preble County Historical Society.
Spillman was a member of AmeriCorps through the Oho Historical Society and accumulated experience in cemetery restoration work. She still sets up workshops for groups that contact her.
The workshops provide a crash course in beginner’s restoration work. “I treat it like a beginner’s workshop for equipment use and proper mortar mixes and adhesives,” Spillman said. “But I also tell them what not to do.”
When Spillman teaches people what not to do she reiterates that you want to do no further damage to the site. Still, she’s heard of people using power washers, chemicals and power tools on headstones. Instead of using the proper mortar mixes and epoxy, some people use cement to fix cracks in stone, which becomes more brittle than the stone itself, making it susceptible to breaking. Those methods are invasive and can damage stones permanently.
A conversation with Misti Spillman:
Instead, Spillman advocates for using more non-invasive methods that often require more time and patience. She’s even used toothbrushes to clean headstones. “I always tell people if you’re not sure, don’t do it,” Spillman said. “You have to have a lot of patience to do this.”
The cost of a workshop covers the materials Spillman uses for a hands-on tutorial. In Ripley, that meant resetting the base of a leaning headstone at Old Riley Cemetery and cleaning the stone itself.
The workshop led to work that has just scratched the surface of what could be done in Ripley, according to Betty Campbell. She hopes, however, that the workshop will have an impact in other rural areas. “People came from other communities to see our workshop and then took that information back to their communities and their little country cemeteries,” she said.
It was an encouraging sign for Campbell. It meant that other people, like herself, care about respecting the past.