Warning: The following article contains personal opinions.
I frequently read about the destruction of cemeteries and ancient burial grounds. Time and again, uncaring or unknowledgeable individuals attack cemeteries with bulldozers, paving equipment, or other heavy equipment.
This week I published a story about a graveyard in eastern Kentucky that was bulldozed. In past months, I have published articles about cemeteries that were paved in order to create a parking lot, as well as another one that was leveled in order to build a new Wal-Mart store. Perhaps the most outrageous story was when an amusement park in Maine deliberately destroyed the final resting place of several veterans of the Civil War as well as some probable veterans of the American Revolution in order to build a new water slide.
Destroying a cemetery shows callousness and a lack of concern for the deceased. Such disregard for the dead also shows ignorance. In fact, it also shows a lawbreaker at work as most states already have laws prohibiting the destruction of cemeteries or graves.
How can we stop people from destroying graves and graveyards? Passing more laws strikes me as a waste of effort. If individuals and corporations are already ignorant of present laws or choose to ignore such laws, passing additional legislation won't change anything. What is needed is a method of making people more aware of the present laws and social customs. I would suggest there is a simple solution.
As I travel around, I often see signs saying "No Dig Zone." These signs typically are erected over the top of buried pipelines, telephone cables, or other manmade subterranean construction. Why not do the same with cemeteries?
In fact, a sign saying "No Dig Zone" that includes a reference to the applicable state laws already in effect will serve to warn and educate construction workers who otherwise might start digging. The intent is to make every construction worker think to himself, "Hey, wait a minute...".
It strikes me that a sign or two on the edge of a cemetery is a simple and low-cost effort. I don't think large cemeteries with hundreds of tombstones are much of an issue. I am more concerned with the small cemetery, often on private land, that has only a few tombstones or perhaps has no tombstones at all remaining. The less conspicuous the cemetery, the greater the likelihood of damage, accidental or otherwise. Placing a sign on the edge of a cemetery or even in the middle would serve as a notice to those who are unaware of existing laws concerning desecration of cemeteries.
I am not naive enough to think that a simple sign will solve all future problems with cemetery destruction, but I do think such signs will prevent problems at a significant percentage of the cemeteries. I'll gladly settle for that percentage.
In theory, local and state governments should place signs that deal with local and state ordinances. However, in this day and age of shrinking government funding for any projects, I wouldn't wait for the governments to act. They already are overwhelmed with other concerns that will stop them from paying for signs or expending labor on erecting those signs.
The only method I see of having such signs erected is to ask those who have the most knowledge of local history to fund the efforts and perform the labor. Local genealogical societies, historical societies, and other, similar groups are the ones who care the most. The signs are not expensive. I'd suggest that local societies and similar organizations (Elks' Club, Lions, Junior Chamber of Commerce, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or even a group of concerned private individuals) could raise the funds and have the signs made locally. A Saturday morning work project would also be needed to place the signs in the cemeteries.
Of course, nothing is ever simple. Before placing a sign on private properly, someone will need to obtain permission from the landowner(s). That isn't all bad. Privately-owned cemeteries are probably the ones most in danger; so, making the landowner(s) aware of the laws and getting them to "buy into" the sign project is critical. Even if they decline to have a sign placed in the cemetery, those landowners will certainly be aware that "someone is watching" and is concerned. That alone strikes me as having a positive effect.
Signs will weather and deteriorate over a period of years. The sponsoring organization will probably need to improve or replace the signs every few years.
I would suggest that the time to start is NOW, before another cemetery is damaged. Raising awareness of the need to preserve cemeteries should be an ongoing process; let's start now and continue forever.
If you would like to start an effort to place "Do Not Dig" signs in your local cemetery, please let me know, and I will give you and your cohorts some publicity in this newsletter. That will hopefully attract others with similar interests to your project. The bigger the group, the less work and financial burden for each person.