Montgomery County Illinois History

WHY IS CEMETERY PRESERVATION IMPORTANT?

A cemetery serves two purposes, (1) the burial of the dead and (2) a place where the living communicate with the dead. Cemeteries are places with specific visual characteristics including markers, landscaping, fences, and a recognizable spatial relationship between these components. Cemeteries are scattered across the landscape and are found in almost all communities. In addition, present day travelers of back roads will frequently observe isolated cemeteries located some distance from today’s communities or churches.  The locations reflect an evolving rural landscape. For example, regional economic development and shifts in population may have resulted in changes to the transportation system. New roads were developed and old roads were abandoned. Consequently, some early cemeteries may be situated along or near now-abandoned roads.

Cemeteries and their symbols guide us into the past.  They are not just where the dead reside, nor are they static snapshots of older views and attitudes about death.   Cemeteries are dynamic, reflecting changing cultural institutions, social values, and regional ethnic identity. All cemeteries encode social and cultural values reflecting specific choices; therefore they provide insight into how people organized their social and physical landscape.

Markers tell us not only about the individual who died, but the marker’s appearance and placement provides information about the society from which the individual departed.  The symbols and text inscribed on markers contain important information for understanding the past. In addition, changes in marker text and motifs reflect changes in attitude toward death, from the pragmatic and harsh to a more sentimental and spiritual attitude.

The raw materials, shapes, inscriptions, and motifs represented on markers are important components of material culture. The placement and arrangement of markers informs us about the use of space. Consequently, cemeteries and markers are studied by art historians, folklorists, cultural geographers, archaeologists, anthropologists, genealogists, and historians. Increasingly, cemetery studies are the focus of amateurs searching for ancestors or individuals with an interest in learning about the past or understanding the rituals of death. These latter two groups are instrumental in saving cemeteries for future generations.

When cemeteries are ignored and allowed to deteriorate, and markers are damaged or destroyed, society loses important information about the past. Ultimately, an important part of ourselves is lost. Preservation efforts are more successful and vandalism decreases when adults and children become familiar with the information learned from cemeteries.

Source:  Illinois Historic Cemetery Preservation Handbook

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