Sunday, March 14, 2021

... stories continue after cemetery vandalism...


Last night before heading to bed, I learned that at some point over the weekend, Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia was a target for vandals. They destroyed numerous gravestones, many 120+ years old, in Presidents Circle where Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler are buried along with some prominent-in-their-day members of Richmond society. The area is a small part of the 135-acre garden cemetery but as one could imagine, much damage can be done within a small area.

I have run River City Cemetarians since 2017. It’s a group of individuals who like visiting old cemeteries and my focus has always been on getting folks into the cemeteries for a visit. Outside of the pandemic, I give tours and raise money for the Friends organizations that help preserve these historic spaces. A common explanation is for the group name, which is because Richmond, Virginia is known as the "river city," and because I like alliteration. There are actually two ways to spell the term cemetarian/ cemeterian. The latter spelling is commonly used because it looks more like “cemetery.” I tend to go with the former spelling because, as an English professor, I prefer the Latin suffix: -arian, meaning “having a concern or belief in a specified thing.” While all of our words are, arguably, made up, they are rooted (pun intended) in other languages. The etymology of the term “cemetery” can be a bit complicated and it is believed to be derived from Old French “cimetiere” (graveyard) and from Late Latin “coemeterium.” Because the term is most likely based in Latin, I use the Latin suffix.

Another common question is, “why cemeteries?” Today my answer is something like, “the dead don’t go around destroying things.” Honestly, the answer is more complicated. I have always loved cemeteries. As a grandchild of a genealogist, some of my earliest and best memories included helping my grandfather look for family members in old cemeteries. These visits always included my grandfather making connections to the family tree and, if we were lucky, a good story about our family members. Today, as an English professor, I still love a good story although I find that as I get older, nonfiction holds my interest a bit more. I also love being outdoors. I returned to graduate school for Public History when my university called on faculty to become more interdisciplinary in our teaching. My research throughout that program focused on historic cemeteries. Since completing the program in 2018, I have taught a few interdisciplinary courses focused on cemeteries along with dark tourism and ghost stories and haunted history, which focuses on my love of literature, folklore, and history.

The weekend vandalism is painful but I spent this morning focused on telling the stories of those interred in the grave-markers that the vandals targeted. My day has been filled with explaining that cemeteries are still safe places to visit for families.

Mount Hebron Cemetery
A few months ago, I nearly fell in a hole while walking the grounds of Mount Hebron Cemetery in Winchester, Virginia. They have so many beautiful pieces of art that I really should not be faulted for looking up instead of looking down but I did need to pay attention. I met the culprit- a giant groundhog! He’s done some serious damage. Here’s the infamous hole that I noticed and damage to the ground under another grave. I peeped in the holes to see how deep they were. He’s done some damage. It’s frustrating to see cemeteries targeted by human vandals because our cemetery workers and volunteers are already struggling with nature.
the hole I nearly fell into
Sometimes it's easy to think that vandalism and disrespecting cemeteries is a new occurrence. Not so. Here's an article from the Richmond Dispatch, July 26, 1860 about a daughter trying to remove dark pencil marks from her mother's white marble grave in Shockoe Hill Cemetery.


Richmond Dispatch, July 26, 1860.

Vandalism can also feel very personal. I remember standing at a gravesite of one of the loveliest pieces of art and just two weeks prior to our July 4th visit of Bruton Parish Episcopal Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, vandals had attempted to destroy this grave marker. This one stone was pure beauty. How can people be so awful? Destruction for what purpose?

It’s a reminder to go out to the cemeteries now. Visit them today while they’re here. Visit your favorites. Find one you’ve never noticed before. Appreciate them when you can.

Bruton Cemetery gravestone in 2015 before vandalism

Bruton Cemetery, photo taken in 2018

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