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Public asked, urgently, to help document region's old cemeteries
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Public asked, urgently, to help document region's old cemeteries

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Virginia is rightly famed for its deep and varied history, but much of the state’s past has never been written down. It is at risk of being lost forever.

That’s certainly the case with the final resting places of many of the commonwealth’s earlier people. Tucked away in woods and fields, old burial places can be out of sight, out of mind.

Which means their gravestones—if any survive above ground—can be bulldozed, erased, in a few minutes’ time if someone is so inclined. (This reporter has known that to happen in county after county.)

The Piedmont Environmental Council, which keeps in steady contact with landowners across the region, is well aware of the issue. And is now trying to do something about it.

The nonprofit conservation group hopes to identify undocumented burial sites across its nine-county turf, which includes Culpeper, Madison, Greene, Orange, Albemarle, Clarke, Fauquier, Loudoun and Rappahannock counties.

PEC’s staff seeks to link landowners and citizens to preservation professionals who can help them identify and document those localities’ historic cemeteries and burial grounds.

“Whether it be one grave or many, the destruction or loss of any cemetery means community and familial ties are lost forever,” Kristie Kendall, the council’s historic preservation coordinator, wrote in an appeal last week for the public’s assistance with the effort.

“These sites are vulnerable to neglect and destruction, as many lay forgotten or unmaintained—and when they are discovered in the midst of a new development project or the clearing of a forest, it is sometimes too late to protect them,” Kendall said.

The lack of documentation contributes to the loss of cemeteries and the stories they represent, she said.

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Virginia’s Piedmont, of course, holds some of America’s most historic landscapes, Kendall noted.

Here, the Manahoac peoples traded along the Rappahannock, battles were fought for independence, freedom and equality, and presidents and abolitionists were born and buried, she said.

An important feature of Virginia’s cultural landscape, old burial grounds are a tangible connection to the past that lets us engage with the history and lives of those who came before us, Kendall said.

An important first step to ensuring they are saved is to create records of them, so the information isn’t lost to time, failing memory, and the passing of generations.

So, Kendall asked two of PEC’s summer fellows, Julia Rankin of Oregon State University and Samantha Grossman of Smith College, to create an online survey to identify cemeteries and burial grounds that need to be documented.

Which is where area residents can help.

Kendall asked that people take a moment to take the short survey to identify and describe nearby cemeteries or burial grounds—those on your own property—that may be undocumented.

Rankin and Grossman have just a week left to complete their practicum projects as PEC Fellows, Kendall said, so she implored people to please take a moment and fill out the form.

She hopes to soon have some initial results for the fellows to review, but will keep collecting responses over the next few weeks.

“It is crucial that we honor those who came before us,” Kendall said. “We need your help to document these landscapes of memory.”

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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