Why Study Cemeteries?

Cemeteries have always been an enigma in Western society.  They are at once both feared and revered as places of sacredness and cultural importance.  The study of cemeteries, however, has largely been ignored by serious academics, and instead has been taken up mainly by local historians and other local interest groups.

This presents a problem.  The bulk of cemetery research, unfortunately, focuses on the paranormal.  Cemeteries are resting places for a culture’s dead, and many, such as Guernsey Hollow in Frewsburg, New York, have become international targets for ghost hunters and urbanites in search of cheap scares, especially around Hallowe’en.  The problem, especially with Guernsey Hollow, is that reputations of being haunted make things difficult for serious researchers when we are after the history of a cemetery and its associated settlement.  Looking beyond the ghosts becomes next to impossible to do.

The Northeastern Coalition for Cemetery Studies was born out of a need to be able to look beyond the ghosts and seriously study small-town cemeteries.  There is a very real need for this research: Often, ground-penetrating radar equipment rentals are priced beyond the town budget, and records have been poorly kept.  Fire has destroyed some of them.  For other records that might have existed, they were oral and not written down.  When the people who knew these things died, this knowledge died with them.  At the time this project was in the development stages, its organizers were desperate for a method to easily, and most importantly, accurately, understand the immediate landscape within the borders of any given cemetery.

When man-made structures no longer exist, often one can find evidence of their existence through the means of archaeology and its various methods: Geophysics, landscape archaeology, and studying the plants that people living in settlements brought with them.  All of these methods are useful in studying cemeteries and understanding their layouts.  Local legends are important, too.  For example, if there is a legend that states that a cemetery was moved, or that a potter’s field was discovered, it is well worth the time to the social scientist to pay attention to these legends even if the written record does not mention such events at all.

Landscape archaeology can help identify these places by looking for worked stone, lumps and bumps in the ground that could indicate human activity of long-past eras, and sometimes by looking for evidence of how the immediately local landscape was changed by historical events such as fire or the human need to harness the power of water for mills.  A town could have been witness to major, periodic flooding and its residents might have built dikes or dams and drainage ditches to help remedy the problem.  Immigrants could have brought with them favourite plants from their homelands and placed them around their homes or other areas of significance.  Sometimes, artifacts are easily found on the surface of the ground.  In short, there is a wealth of resources for understanding man-made landscapes, and most of those resources also apply to cemeteries.

Therefore, part of the mission of the Northeastern Coalition for Cemetery Studies is to understand the mortuary landscape of the American Northeast in pioneer communities and how that understanding can help a community record its cemeteries.  When the records are not enough, non-invasive archaeology is of the utmost importance.  It is hoped that this project will provide an accurate and affordable means of cemetery identification and research to other small town cemeteries in the region.

Beyond the Ghosts: The Preservation Plight of America’s Small-Town Cemeteries

Presented by Amanda Brainard, founder of the Northeastern Coalition for Cemetery Studies, at the Fenton History Center, Jamestown, NY

Beyond the Ghosts lecture transcript

Jamestown Post-Journal Article about the lecture: