Cemetery Advocacy

Finding your voice and making it work by Jeanne Robinson

Many of us are involved in worthwhile cemetery projects. But are we advocates? More importantly, are we effective advocates?

Webster’s defines an advocate as one who pleads a cause. If you are compiling a cemetery listing, this is extremely worthwhile and valuable. If you are organizing others to record, restore, clean or preserve a cemetery, you MAY be an advocate. If you are successful in organizing and helping to implement a cemetery restoration project with plans for continued maintenance and income, you are an effective advocate.

To plead a cause, you must know what it is and be able to communicate it clearly to others. For instance, the premise is your cemetery is valuable. The problem is the cemetery is suffering from neglect and vandalism. So what is the solution?

Before anyone else is going to help you, they will have to first buy into the premise that cemeteries are valuable. Some people will have no difficulty getting there, but others will have to be told why. You must be able to articulate why cemeteries are valuable.
  • They are repositories of unique genealogical, historical, religious, cultural, societal and medical information that may not be recorded in any other format.

  • They are free public museums filled with history and irreplaceable artwork.

  • They are places in which the average citizen has an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors.

  • They are sources of humor, pathos, and folklore.

  • They are laboratories filled with antique biological specimens.

  • They are habitat for birds and wildlife -- greenspaces.

You will also need to be able to describe the problem. Your audience may not have experienced visiting a neglected or vandalized cemetery. You may need to take them to see for themselves or produce photographic evidence.

You may need to explain to others WHY cemeteries are neglected and vandalized. Be prepared to talk about your cemetery, its location, the attitude of neighbors and youth in the area, the societal differences between us and our ancestors, etc.

You will need to have a clear solution in mind -- well thought out with costs, time lines, impact to the cemetery, visitors, neighborhood, etc., and plans for on-going maintenance after the solution is implemented.

All of this is part of your plan. You will probably find you have multiple items that need to be done to improve your cemetery, so be prepared to prioritize them. You may seek help from separate groups of individuals to implement your ultimate goals. Some will take no money (an inventory) while others can be very costly (fending, lighting, professional restoration of multiple stones, landscaping, etc.). Your plan needs to include all of the goals.

Don't do this alone! You have selected your cemetery because it is special to you for some reason. Find others who feel as you do (for whatever reason) and enlist their help in developing your plan. These may also be some of the people who implement parts of your plan. Look for help from:
  • Descendants of people buried in the cemetery
  • Cemetery neighbors
  • Local service groups (church, Boy Scouts, Rotary or Lions clubs, garden clubs, etc.)
  • Historical and genealogical societies
  • Community leaders and local government
  • Local and State police
  • County Community Service workers from Corrections Departments
  • Local media (newspapers, radio, TV)
  • Schools -- all grades and college
  • Foundations and businesses
  • State Senators and Representatives

These people can help clarify your plea and enhance your voice. They will help you be an effective advocate (or one or more of them may do it better than you). Remember, the goal is to fix your cemetery -- not to gain recognition for having done so. Stay focused.

Form a Board of Trustees, Cemetery Association, or Cemetery Maintenance District. Incorporate your goal (plan) into your mission, bylaws, charter, or incorporation papers. Seek members, keep them involved, and encourage the education and enlistment of new members. If your group is not self-sustaining, the goal will end when your membership dies.

When establishing your group, look to similar organizations for ideas. Other associations will usually be pleased to provide copies of their bylaws for your use in writing your own. Ask other cemetery associations, genealogical or historical societies, and other groups you feel run smoothly.

Choose a document such as Robert’s Rules of Order or various Guidelines for Forming Non-Profit Associations as your chosen reference and follow directions for organizational meetings, writing mission and bylaws, filing incorporation papers, running meetings, etc. Keep in mind that bylaws should not include basic operating procedures that might change frequently. A separate document can be created to address your procedures as well as rules for your cemetery.

When your voice is loud and clear, seek help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The worst that can happen is they will say no. Then you can ask again or ask someone else.

When your goals begin to become accomplishments -- when people start talking about how nice your cemetery is looking and what a good job the cemetery group (not a single individual) is doing -- when others are coming to your group for advice -- than you are an effective advocate.

NOTE: The above is from a presentation at Our Sacred Heritage Conference held in Boise, Idaho September 10-11, 1998. We thank the Idaho Historic Preservation Council for inviting our participation.