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When I was a kid, I was terrified of graveyards. I remember trying to hold my breath every time we passed one in the car so the spirits wouldn’t steal my soul. My dad got a big kick out of driving real slow, so my sister and I were left gasping for air while he and my mother laughed. As I got older that fear subsided some but the mystery of “what lies beneath” grew and I began to develop in interest in the history and the story that old cemeteries can tell.
Cemeteries are often more than just burial grounds and places to remember those that have gone on before us. Cemeteries can also serve as an outdoor history museum, a research facility for genealogists and historians, a wildlife refuge, and even art gallery containing the work of generations of skilled etchers, engravers and carvers.
Arkansas has a rich history waiting to be discovered within the borders of its cemeteries. The Pioneer (Old Batesville) Cemetery in Batesville, established in 1820, is considered to be the oldest cemetery in Arkansas. The cemetery holds about 60 actual graves including one of William Johnson, who was born in 1775 during the Revolutionary War and served as a captain in the War of 1812.
The most “star-studded” cemetery in Arkansas is likely the Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock. This cemetery is the final resting place of 11 former Arkansas governors, four Confederate generals, 22 Little Rock mayors and countless other prominent figures. The cemetery began in 1843 and veterans from every war, from the Revolutionary War to Desert Storm, are buried here.
Cemeteries all across the state contain the remains of our family and friends. Every grave is important and every life represented deserves to be remembered. We often crave a tangible connection to our lost loved ones, and a grave marker is often that final connection. Whether 100 years or 100 hours have passed the information about our loved ones, literally written in stone, should be cared for and preserved for generations to come.
I spoke with Leita Spears, an interpreter with Historic Washington State Park, and she painted a beautiful picture of how the information found on a grave marker can tell us so much more than when someone was born and when they died. She gave an example of a marker with this inscription:
Born December 24, 1916
Died September 3, 2004
Loving father and grandfather
Spears explained that from this there are several things we know as fact but there are also several valid assumptions that we can make. We know Mr. Smith had a family, and he lived 88 years. We also know that his children outlived him (“father and grandfather”) and, quite possibly, his wife was deceased before him (No “Loving husband” included).
From these dates, we can also tell that he was born during World War I and would have been the age to have served in the military during World War II. Often a military service marker will be at the foot of a grave if the deceased is a veteran. He lived through the depression and quite possibly enjoyed several years in retirement.
Many Arkansas cemeteries have been neglected for decades. The markers and grounds lay in disrepair, and their futures are uncertain due to abandonment, environmental factors, and even vandalism and theft. Stones may be broken or nearly unreadable due to time and weathering. We often think of stone as being indestructible, but the truth is that stone is used because it is easy to carve into thus making it more susceptible to damage over time.
As time continues to pass there is a growing desire by many to preserve each marker found in historic cemeteries. Due to the ease of digital photography and a growing number of historic grave marker databases on the Internet, many are taking photos of historic graves. Photos of stone can be scrapbooked, uploaded to the Internet or even added to a family genealogy book.
Another popular method of preserving the image is by creating grave rubbings. Grave rubbings can be beautiful pieces of art themselves but should be made with extreme care and caution. It is important that you always check with the cemetery first as many do not allow rubbings because if not done properly, they can cause damage to the stone.
If you are creating a rubbing of your great-grandfather’s stone, the damage would likely be minimal, if at all. Since your great-grandfather is only meaningful to a relatively small number of people there may be only one, or just a few rubbings, made. However, with graves of famous people, repeated rubbing done by hundreds of people each year can wear down the surface.
Once you have determined that rubbings are allowed, it is suggested that you gently clean the surface of the stone with water and a soft bristle brush. Gentle cleaning remove any dirt, moss or lichen that is on the surface. Never force any debris off of the stone and never select a stone that is damaged or fragile in any way.
Rubbing wax is the best material for obtaining a rubbing. It is soft and will not damage the surface. Soft artists’ charcoal or a jumbo crayon would be the next best choice. Pencils, pens or markers should never be used. The paper you select should not be thin enough to tear easily. Aqaba paper, a synthetic rice paper, is the most recommended paper for creating stone rubbings.
Begin by selecting a piece of paper that is much larger than the stone you will be rubbing. This will ensure that none of the rubbing wax will get onto the surface. Using masking tape only, secure the paper to the stone. Using a gentle rubbing motion, hold the wax bar at a slight angle and rub it over the entire surface of the paper. You will begin to see an image appear. Continue to rub gently until the entire image is transferred onto your paper.
When you have completed all of your rubbings and it is time to leave, clean up after yourself. Make sure you gently remove all of your tape and collect any trash. Always leave the gravesite in better condition than it was when you arrived. Before you go, you may want to jot down some information about where and when the rubbing was made.
If you are interested in the preservation of cemeteries, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Society host several workshops each year. You can visit their website for more information on Arkansas Cemetery laws, upcoming workshops and how to preserve a historic cemetery.
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