On August 21, the Elkhart County Historical Museum will be hosting a presentation by Jeannie Regan-Dinius of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). As part of the DNR’s outreach, Regan-Dinius, who serves as director of special initiatives for the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, goes around the state doing presentations on various topics to educate the people of the state and make them aware of various issues. The presentation will begin 7 p.m. at the museum (304 W. Vistula Bristol St., Bristol) and is a free program.
The topic Regan-Dinius will be covering is the preservation of cemeteries. In Elkhart County there are many cemeteries that range from large, like Violett Cemetery in Goshen, to very small, like Cathcart Cemetery in Bristol. There are also little cemeteries that hold members of a small family or forgotten community. Many of the larger cemeteries are cared for by the cities of Elkhart and have weekly maintenance done, but many smaller cemeteries are left unattended. Because of this, they can become victim to overgrowth, vandalism and other problems. As a citizen, there are a number of things you can to preserve these historic monuments and sacred places. And while there are things we can do, we must remember there are also things we must refrain from doing. To find out what to do, check out resources like the DNR’s page on cemetery preservation or the Indiana Pioneer Cemetery Restoration Project’s website.
Here are more tips for what you can do to properly restore a historic cemetery:
The first step has to deal with ownership. When a cemetery is discovered, find out who owns the property. It may be owned by private individual, a township or even a county. Determining who the owner is may require some research at a local library or the county recorder’s office, or maybe even posting a notice in the newspaper. Once you’ve found out who the owner is, take the proper steps to ensure work can be done to the area, which may mean obtaining a permit.
The next step is proper documentation of the site. Take pictures before any work is done. As you begin to do work, continue to take photos throughout the process to track your progress and document grave sites, the condition of markers and other important visual information. Also create a map of the area as graves are located, and determine the boundaries of the cemetery. This will be important in the future for documentation and to people who use your findings for research.
When it comes to doing physical work on a cemetery, a person must operate under the motto “do no harm.” If it’s not done properly, clearing brush, limbs, weeds and grass can cause major damage to a site. Use proper equipment, and work safely so no grave sites are disturbed. Once the brush is cleared, many people want to restore gravestones by cleaning them. This is an important thing to do, but also where the most damage can be done. If there is a stone that is cracked, flaking or scaling, a person might think it needs the most work. However, those stones should be left alone, because some markers are beyond repair. Also, identify what type of stone grave markers are made of before starting any type of work. For example, using cleaning products and water on a gravestone made from sandstone could cause irreversible damage. When cleaning, also be mindful of what products you shouldn’t use. Do not use household cleaners under any circumstances! The best thing you can use is water mixed with Kodak Photo Flo or Orvus soap. Also, never use any type of metal brush, scraper or abrasive pads (like Brillo pads). When you’re done cleaning, a thorough rinsing with water is necessary to properly clean markers. The best advice, however, is to consult an expert if you’re not sure what to do.
Cemeteries are important because they serve as final resting places for our ancestors. For many people doing historical research and genealogy, they are historic monuments. There is a great deal of information we can grab from cemeteries, and there are a number of things we can do to ensure the information can be taken, but it must be done properly. To find out more about what is being done throughout the state and what the public can do, come the museum at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21.