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Monday, February 6, 2012

DYING BREED -- RURAL FAMILY CEMETERIES


Abandoned Private Family Cemetery, Madison County, Kentucky. 
Family cemetery name unknown.

As I drive country roads in Kentucky I more than likely will spot a family cemetery sitting on some knoll. My home has an  abandoned one located just east of me, another still cared for just west, all within close walking distance. 


Kentucky has many small private family cemeteries that have existed for decades or centuries on rural landscapes.  Today, they are found near existing homesteads or many times they sit alone on open acreage or in isolated woodlands. 

Kentucky family cemeteries, for the most part, are abandoned according to a Kentucky Task Force report on the Preservation of Kentucky Cemeteries, 2001.  This report states that out of 2,157 private family burial grounds surveyed, 95% were found to be abandoned. The 2,157 number does not account for all private family cemeteries in the state of Kentucky. Today, the Kentucky Historical Society has a Cemetery Preservation Program that is continuing to comprehensively survey all cemeteries and burial sites in the state.

You might ask what are the causes of abandonment?  There are several; land development, deeds changing hands, natural overgrowth, vandalism, and families relocating. Families dispersing leave the cemeteries without caretakers. 

Abandoned cemetery, acreage overgrowth area, Madison County, Kentucky. Family unknown

Families used to bury their own on their farms or plantations in the South. The layout of these old cemeteries plus their fencing, and gravestones can help identify the former local cultural pattern. I'an W. Brown an anthropology professor at the University of Alabama described family cemeteries as "outdoor museums that are threatened throughout the South." (Theo Emery, The Washington Post)


Kentucky law requires cemeteries to be protected within city limits. This requirement assures all types of city cemeteries will be cared for. Yet there are seemingly no real protections for the rural private family cemeteries that sit forlornly on their hallowed grounds. The only law that I know of is that a developer is legally responsible for moving grave sites to new locations if they develop the land. However, this law is often disregarded by developers. 


I do believe that private family cemeteries are a dying breed in Kentucky. I don't think anyone feels good about this.



References



More Family Cemeteries Dying Away in the South by Theo Emery, The Wahington Post, 2006

Kentucky Cemetery Preservation Program




15 comments:

  1. We have hiked on farms just to stare in wonder at old gravestones. Some of them are so beautiful and contain ritual symbols.

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  2. Michelle -- I would figure that you would have quite a few of the old private family cemeteries near where you live in Kentucky. The gravestones themselves have stories to tell. Thanks for the comment -- barbara

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  3. Quite a few such small cemeteries also exist in the Northeast. The stones, though weather worn, often tell bits of history: fought with Washington, soldier, patriot. I think of a few that seem sporadically cared for, they are not hidden by weeds but rarely seem tended. Simply reading the dates recalls history of the area.

    (Your pun was inevitable.)

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  4. June -- I would imagine that there are quite a few in the Northeast as early settlements were isolated at the time. I'm sure that the Northeast has some very early family cemeteries as you were settled so early -- Thanks for the comment -- barbara

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  5. I Love old cemeteries, but rarely see one that's been abandoned. It seems a shame to have them left completely unattended, as it means no one there is really remembered anymore. I suppose, given enough time, those we know now will all be abandoned.

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  6. I love to visit the Old Ones. They are somehow so wild and free..........

    Thanks for sharing this.

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  7. Teresa -- No one likes to be abandoned. I'm sure when the many private family cemeteries in Kentucky were established there were no thoughts by the family that some day it would be abandoned. The Kentucky Task Force report estimates there are probably 12,000 private family cemeteries in Kentucky. That is a lot of cemeteries to care for given the present circumstances. Thanks for the comment -- barbara

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  8. MImi -- What great thoughts of those that are in our cemeteries. The history of cemeteries is very interesting. Cemeteries influenced the establishment of parks in our country.Thanks for the comment.

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  9. There is a mess of old family cemeteries in "Land Between The Lakes". They moved a lot of family cemeteries there when they flooded Kentucky and Barkley lakes. My wife always waves and we sometimes visit her kinfolk now buried beside the trace next to the Elk and Bison Prairie. I have a brother-in-law who was buried on his farm when he passed. If I remember correctly, new family cemeteries must be fenced in by law and kept up. His son now owns the part of the farm where he rests. Every few years I take my bird dog and wonder across the meadows to the hill top where he rests and reminisce on my brother-in-laws smile.

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  10. We often find small cemeteries near old homesteads when we are hiking in the mountains. I always stop and look at them, amazed at the hardscrapple life those people lived so long ago.

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  11. NCmountainwomen -- I believe for many it was a hardscrabble life yet even folks living on plantations were buried in small private family cemeteries. Perhaps someday, before it is too late, some researchers will write about this issue and discover traditions of these cemeteries that we never thought of. Thanks for the comment.

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  12. Grampy -- Lovely tribute to your brother-in-law -- you and your dog visiting where he rests and reminiscing. Did not know of the new law about new private family cemeteries. Perhaps it was the (Federal) Corp of Engineers that moved the old family cemeteries to Land Between the Lakes?" Would make an interesting story -- thanks for the information -- barbara

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  13. There is a well tended family cemetery bordering one of our pastures -- a lovely tradition. There are still quite a few around here -- a doubtless some smaller forgotten ones in the woods.

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  14. Vicki -- As The Washington Post article said, there are many in the South that are in decline. There is something sad about all these folks that settled their land being forgotten. Fortunately many still are being cared for -- nice that you have one bordering your pasture. -- barbara

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  15. How sad. We have an old family cemetery and people are still being buried in it. But there are so many graves there that are unmarked, only sunken places in the ground. Others have rocks for markers. My son made a nice sign for it and I got tombstones for our older family members that had only metal markers on them, so that in the future people would know who was there and where they are located. My gr grandparents are there, but we had to guess as to where they were buried and we put nice metal markers on them. When the interstate came through near where the foot of the holler was, cemeteries also had to be relocated.

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