Sunday, September 4, 2016

A behind the scenes/ hard hat tour of Poplar Grove Cemetery... and the Tombstone House

“You cannot go to the cemetery
and ask to be enlightened on matters of this kind,
though it would ease my mind considerably
if you could.”
~ William Maxwell

Last week I went on a *hard hat tour* of Poplar Grove National Cemetery.

I love seeing rehabilitation efforts in cemeteries that are in progress and I love (legally) entering cemeteries that are closed to the public like that time last year when I got to go into Odd Fellows Rest in New Orleans.

The top number is the listing; the bottom represents the number of unknown soldiers buried here.
I found this tour on the National Parks Service website when I was browsing for adventures for my cemeterians Meet-Up group to attend. The tour was a “behind the scenes” look at the rehabilitation project at Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Poplar Grove is one of 14 National Cemeteries administered by the National Park Service. It is closed for burials and due to a rehabilitation project the cemetery will be closed into 2017.

A bit of history about this cemetery is that in 1862 Congress passed legislation giving the President of the United States the authority to purchase land for the establishment of cemeteries for soldiers who gave their lives for the country aka who fought for the Union during the Civil War. This legislation began the National Cemetery system.

During the Siege of Petersburg, Union soldiers who were killed in battle were hastily buried near where the battles took place in the form of mass graves or even shallow graves. There was a civil war going on so it wasn’t like there were many men who could take their time in these matters.  

This land had been the campsite for the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers. During the war they constructed a Gothic Revival pine-log church called Poplar Grove. When looking for a location for a national cemetery, this seemed like a good place.
When the bodies were disinterred from their hastily buried plots, many were difficult to identify. After all, the headstones, if there were any, had been made of wood. This was a similar fate to the 30,000 Confederate dead buried at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, of whom only about 2,000 names are known.

Here comes a somewhat eerie tale that leads to the renovation project of today. During the 1930s (read that as the Great Depression), the superintendent of the cemetery decided to cut (pun intended) costs by removing the upright grave markers in Poplar Grove National Cemetery, cutting off the bottoms which had been in the ground, and replacing the top portions by lying them down flat. This helped grounds crew with maintenance which has been an ongoing battle in many cemeteries. The 2,220 bottom portions of the markers were sold to a gentleman who proceeded to build his dream house out of the materials.  Today you can see this house in Petersburg, Virginia.

the Tombstone house
When doing a little research on this house, I found a Facebook page which shows a picture of the fireplace mantle which had been constructed by the bottom portion of the tombstones. Personally, I find this a little bit crass but I suppose during that time when the country's economy had crashed that one had to make do.

While this was the story the NPS ranger shared, there are some who believe that the entire markers were removed and that the names inscribed face inward hidden from the outside. Some believe that the markers are a bit too large to only be the bottom portions of the grave markers. Since some believe that desecration is involved, the property is considered to be haunted. When I drove by, I didn't notice it being creepy but that it was beautifully landscaped.

Today, the cemetery is being completely redone with new tombstones. It's difficult to tell from the pictures how far this place has come. As it is nearing the end of the renovation project, the grounds look amazing with sparkling white marble stones in place. While we were there, there was even a dedication for one of the interred. I'm certainly going to try to return for the dedication. The cemetery is about an hour from my home but there is the first time in US history that any project of this caliber has been attempted. For the most part, I see cemeteries that are dilapidated; and, I see individuals trying to make do with resources. This is a government-funded project that competed for funding. It's beautiful what they're doing. I wish more cemeteries could receive such support. 
Pictures taken in bathrooms

Since the controversial 1930s occurrence, today the US government requires that all grave markers that are removed from a national cemetery be destroyed to the point that they cannot be recognized.

Because this was an active construction site, we were required to wear hard hats. It was a crazy hot day but I took a moment to take a picture with the newly renovated bathroom to go in my Facebook album, Pictures Taken in Bathrooms because apparently that is a thing that I do *shrug*.

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