Cemetery Landscaping Issues (3)
Many times when visiting an older cemetery or undertaking a clean up and restoration project you will find numerous rocks located within that cemetery. While these rocks may look to be at first glance just randomly scattered rocks, in reality they often are the only marker or indication that this is in fact the location of a grave. A general rule to follow is that you should never remove a rock from a cemetery.
The use of rocks as grave markers can be for any number of reasons. Some of these include:
Many people could not afford to purchase a carved gravestone. Often times in these cases "field stones" or other such rocks were used in place of a carved marker. During the depression years there was no money to purchase gravestones and it seems over the years no one has stepped up to replace the stones. Still more cemeteries will often have rows of graves with "field stone" markers. Many times graves were marked by non-native rocks (all others having been removed from the immediate vicinity) so that others would know a grave existed. Often times a larger rock was placed at the head of the grave and a smaller one at the foot. Later, if a traditional tombstone was placed, the rock was removed at the time the marker was erected. Some have long flat rocks placed in the ground in a perpendicular fashion to resemble the regular gravestones but some are marked with just a rock.
Local Customs - While the grave itself may or may not have been marked by a rock, with many of the older burial sites it was a custom to outline the grave with a border of rocks. This custom may have arisen from local customs of using field rocks to outline fields, or build cairns for property corner markers.
Lack of a local stone mason at the time.
In some cases there rocks have been removed by workers in order to make mowing easier. All too often we are discovering that a Boy Scout troop or a 4-H group did a community service project and removed all the "loose" rocks from the cemeteries. It is also possible if you find a pile of rocks in the area of a neglected or abused cemetery that someone before you removed them from graves, and piled them where you are finding them.
In the very old cemeteries in the desert west, a wooden cross was placed at the head of the grave and the grave outlined in small rocks. It didn't take long for the sand to cover the small rocks and for the wooden cross to deteriorate. So, if anyone discovers a line of small rocks in or under the sand, look for the grave!
According to Terry Jordan in his book "Texas Cemeteries, A cultural legacy", there is a practice known it the Southern United States as "scraping" (as in scraping clean) of either a grave or an entire cemetery. The first glimpse of such a cemetery truly startles the unsuspecting visitor. Throughout the burial ground, the natural grasses and weeds have been laboriously chopped or "scraped" away, revealing an expanse of read-orange East Texas soil or somber black prairie earth, sometimes decorated with raked patterns, At each grave, this dirt is heaped in an elongated mound, oriented on an east-west and anchored by a head and foot stone. In his book, he has a map of all of the counties in Texas and he has marked all of the known counties that have entire cemeteries scraped along with other counties which have an occasional scraped grave. To quote from his book, "Perhaps no feature of the southern folk cemetery begs more for interpretation than the practice of scraping." He states that he interviewed several individuals when they were "working" the cemetery. The term "working" is another old term describing when a group of individuals went to their cemetery to clean it up. Many cemeteries were "worked" only once a year at the annual meeting of the association. Usually this was an all-day affair where everybody brought food and drinks along with chairs and tables and worked on the graveyard. Stones were attended to along with weeds and grass were removed as well as any fallen branches. At some of the cemetery association meetings, a preacher also preached to the crowd.
Mr. Jordan said that most likely, this particular practice may have its origin in Africa. Near equivalents to bare earth cemeteries can be found in the traditional practices of the West African slave coast...I believe the scraped wrath cemetery is an Africanism and goes hand-in-hand with the typically southern and African swept-earth yard surrounding dwellings. Indeed southern folks typically refer to their cemeteries as 'yards.' Grass, in Africa and the South, was an unwelcome intruder. Respectable people kept it chopped out of yards, fields, and burial grounds. Some rural Anglos in Texas even refer to scraping as "plowing." The Ultimate African reasons were possibly the danger posed by grassfires and the proverbial snake in the grass. Removal of the grass also kept loose livestock from grazing (and defecating) in yards and cemeteries. Or, perhaps, scraping came south across Africa to the slave coast long ago with Islam. In that case, the laborious scraped Texas graveyards could be an effort to re-create, in a humid climate, the long-forgotten desert desolation of the Sahara and Arabia, where Moslem dead lie beneath the bare sand. In Nigeria graves were covered with mud plaster and in the Ashanti hinterland in Ghana they erected conical mud mounds over their graves. Many times the dead were buried in the earthen floor of their house, in the swept-earth yards or in tilled gardens.
The Spaniards brought to the New World the practice of establishing a "blessed field" to establish a special sacredness. Burials could be in the church floor. Families of wealth and influence considered church burials as a status symbol. Camposantos were fine for the poor and converted Indians, but not for rico. (Terry Gordon book Texas Graveyards.) It could
He went on to write that when he interviewed one person at a cemetery "working," he asked the man exactly why he was doing this. The man replied, "Grandpaw killed himself keeping the weeds out of his cotton, and we're not about to let them grow on his grave now." Mr. Jordan also noted that some of the Native American groups practiced scraping, especially the Alabama-Coushatta. On Mr. Jordan's map, there are four counties all located along the west bank of the Trinity River where there isn't any known cemetery that practices the art of scraping. He also shows a few on the east bank down river and in Johnson County northwest of here. This may indicate that the settlers who migrated here came from certain areas of the eastern seaboard where this habit of scraping wasn't practiced.
The practice of scraping graves is dying and some of the old ones are now partially or wholly covered with grass.
One of the more interesting aspects of older cemeteries is the horticultural, or various types of plants that may be found within. The specific types of plants and trees that will be found in a specific cemetery will vary widely from region to region. But in general, the plant life that can be found within older cemeteries can offer a valuable and important history lesson themselves.
While some smaller and more rural graveyards still allow, or even encourage, the involvement of family members in the landscaping around a loved one's grave, many cemeteries today post signs that request that visitors do not plant permanent plants. The reasoning behind this is that assuming the plants survive, over time they can easily become over grown if not cared for on a regular basis The growth of these plants can and will begun to cover up the gravestones, making it difficult for others to find the burials, or possibly causing damage to the stone itself. Some types of plants can spread rapidly and not only cover the gravestone, but the entire area surrounding it. Lilacs in particular can really spread and take over a cemetery.
Cemeteries as a horticultural repository
Cemeteries are not only memorials to the dead; they also have secured a vital function as horticultural repositories. An article in the November 1996 issue of Southern Living discussed the cemetery as a storehouse of plants as opposed to a storehouse of bodies. Many of the plants found in older cemeteries reflect the horticultural tastes of a different era, and sometimes antique varieties of plants that are thought to be either endangered or lost can be found growing in older graveyard. It should also be noted that in many cases cemeteries also functioned in the capacity of "testing grounds" for plants that are now common in our yards and gardens. Before any clean up or landscaping is attempted, you should make sure you aren't disturbing valuable or rare plant life. In some cases, it is a crime to remove live plants from a cemetery.
The use of native plantings is becoming more popular nationwide, with these plantings being used for their historical value, beauty, and hardiness in a given climate. A very comprehensive site for information on native plants across the United States (including Invasive & Noxious plants) can be found at http://plants.usda.gov/.
Developed by Dr. Randy Westbrooks, The Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds has produced a comprehensive fact book, "Invasive plants: changing the landscape of America", intended to raise awareness of the destruction and economic losses caused by invasive plants in the United States. While not specifically geared to cemetery issues, this compilation of facts presents a excellent overview of the problems presented by invasive plants and talks about both individual and collaborative efforts to respond to this threat.
Trees in Cemeteries
The trees that can be found in cemeteries may be some of the oldest and largest types of their kind in the area as they were to some degree protected from being cut down for what ever reason.