Death of a Cemetery
The alarming state of many of the cemeteries in Newfoundland was a significant deciding factor in initiating the StonePics photo project. This web page describes the author's observations about the causes of this problem and offers a few ideas about design and maintenance of cemeteries based on visits to 1600 cemeteries in Newfoundland.
In most cases the death of a cemetery can be attributed to a lack of maintenance due to inaccessibility. As the cemetery turns into a forest, tree roots and unstable soil cause the stones to overturn, and they become buried or destroyed while lying on the earth.
These were the most common problems observed:
- Abandonment due to resettlement programs - Whole towns were abandoned as a result of resettlement programs leaving many cemeteries less accessible for maintenance. They have become out-of-sight & out-of-mind.
- Abandonment due to the age of the cemetery - The cemetery is probably full, the stones have fallen, and no living individuals in the community feel a personal connection to those who were buried there.
- Cemetery design flaws - The fundamental design or layout of the cemetery created conditions too difficult to attract regular maintenance. Perhaps the worst cause of this is small fences and concrete walls erected around individual graves or family plots. Fences meant to keep others from stepping on a grave eventually make the grave ugly due to lack of maintenance. Concrete barriers erected around graves and family plots make mowing difficult and create trip hazards for maintenance workers and elderly people attending funerals and visiting graves.
- Roses, especially wild roses - Well-meaning individuals planted roses which have gotten out of control and engulfed most or all of the cemetery. During this project several cemeteries where found that were head-high in rose bushes... not too inviting for maintenance volunteers.
- Difficult access for maintenance volunteers - A number of cemeteries were accessible only by a hike on a path, often up a steep hill, making it difficult to bring in lawn mowers and other maintenance tools.
- Unfinished business - People of the community banded together for a Saturday of cemetery cleaning, often requiring several hundred man-hours of labor. The bushes and saplings were cut down, but their bases were left to freely engulf the cemetery the following summer.
- Too many cemeteries and too few people - With so many Newfoundlanders living outside of Newfoundland, a large majority of the able-bodied young people are not home to help with maintenance. The number of graves and cemeteries to maintain has become disproportionately large compared to the number of people available to help.
Suggestions Regarding Maintenance
Making cemeteries easier to maintain is the key to preventing their loss over the long term.
While one cemetery in Newfoundland was being photographed for this project, a construction company was working there with a backhoe and jackhammers to remove the concrete walls and barriers that had been erected by individual plot owners. At other cemeteries there was a growing trend towards a policy of no walls and barriers. Signs were posted in front to make the policy known.
Many new and well-planned cemeteries are putting in a continuous concrete foundation for headstones to prevent them from falling over as described on a separate page titled Death of a Headstone. Hopefully this excellent idea will spread.
Cemeteries that have been cleaned up by work crews need continuous maintenance on a smaller scale to ensure the work already done is not wasted. Foliage emerging the following spring from the roots and stumps left by the previous year's maintenance can be covered with black plastic or sprayed with weed killer. Cemetery policies should include prohibition of the planting of roses.