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Preservation of Cemeteries

A Study in Cultural Attitudes

Throughout our collective history, memorials around the world have provided important and crucial clues about our heritage. Wether a simple and uninscribed monolith, or an ornately carved tomb, a persons final remembrance offers information about the individual, as well as the customs that were present during their time on earth. For these (among many other) reasons, preservation of memorial gardens and cemeteries is an important concern from a cultural and historical perspective. Surprisingly though, as some recent examples suggest, it does not appear to be an emotional concern. The public’s overall reaction toward the preservation of cemeteries in the cases below is interesting. As the bones inside a particular cemetery wither with age, so, too, apparently, do the emotions the living have toward the cemetery’s departed souls.

It is all the more surprising to think that collectively, a town or city may deem to use land that may have once been so sacred for construction. Especially considering the fact that for years - even decades - after the loss of a loved one, their family may often go out to their grave site to clean a grave marker that is in place there. It all comes down to a simple equation of time - as you will read below.

The preservation of cemeteries is very important for our future generationsPreservation of cemeteries (in this case a very ancient cemetery) became a bit of a public controversy in the early 21st century in Corpus Christi, Texas when a road construction crew, unexpectedly, found some human bones. Archeologists quickly determined that the road crew was paving over the site of a cemetery that had been created 300-500 years before by what was probably the area’s very first human inhabitants. Preservation of cemeteries quickly became a very heated topic in the city, as leaders struggled with their decisions of how to proceed with the road construction project. The main issue in the discussions was whether preservation of cemeteries took precedence over building a much-needed new traffic artery for the city.

In the end, the road construction proceeded as planned. The public was not overly concerned with preservation of cemeteries – at least not in this case.

A reflection upon this debate over preservation of cemeteries is interesting when one considers several factors: the arguments in favor of entirely halting the road construction were made from a cultural and historical perspective. Those interested in preservation of cemeteries in this case were not looking at the issue from an emotional perspective of grieving. There was no concern, for example, of what the individuals buried in the cemetery would have thought of their final resting places being disturbed by tractors – and then cars. Rather, those making the case for preservation of cemeteries in this case were concerned with preserving the culture and history of the long-extinct Indian tribe that built the cemetery.

Many will agree that cemeteries should be designated as historical land marksThis same emphasis on culture and history over emotion, when it comes to the discussion of preservation of cemeteries, is evident across America and the rest of the Western World where urban sprawl has taken over many old cemeteries. After about 100 years, it seems, a person’s bones are no longer sacred emotionally, and those who are eager to build upon land that was once a cemetery face little opposition – just as the road construction crew mentioned above received almost unanimous support from Corpus Christi residents – when decide to simply dig up the bones and transplant them to another location. So long as the history is preserved with a memorial sign or some other type of dignified tribute, the bones are not given much value.

This is an intriguing study of the human spirit: It would be hard to fathom such universal approval of a land developer’s idea to pave over, say, a cemetery site that was less than 50 years old, but much older sites are transformed nearly every single week somewhere in the world.

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