The old Dover Cemetery is all but invisible from the road save for a few heavily worn headstones peeking out from a family plot overgrown with long, dry grass and pine saplings. Further back, some of the more recent headstones have been tended to, but a collapsed wire fence and thickets of brambles stand as evidence of years of neglect.
Dover, which once belonged to a 19th-century Methodist church, is one of nearly 300 cemeteries in Newton County, many of which have fallen into dilapidation. Some are in danger of disappearing entirely, severing a vital link to the history of the region.
Unfortunately, public budgets are tight, and maintaining cemeteries is not a high priority. Some fall under municipal or county purview, but many are on private or church property. Locating these cemeteries and gaining permission to maintain them can be a challenge, although Georgia law protects the right of descendants to access cemeteries even on private land.
This winter, the county will call on volunteers to begin a modest cleanup project targeting one cemetery from each district. The exact sites and dates have yet to be announced. Hands On Newton and Oxford College Martin Luther King Scholar Committee will be leading a separate cleanup of the Gaither Historic Cemetery, widely believed to be a slave cemetery, on Jan. 19 to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Cemeteries and headstones in particular contain more information than meets the eye; not only do they contain names and records of births and deaths, they also speak volumes about social hierarchies, family structures, religious customs and aesthetic values, providing a window back in time.
Cemeteries are especially valuable for understanding the lives of those typically left out of the historical record, said Mark Auslander, an anthropology professor at Central Washington University who helped lead the restoration of the African-
American section of Oxford Cemetery more than 10 years ago.
“(For) low-income people and people of color who didn’t otherwise leave many records behind, (cemeteries are), in fact, the most eloquent part of the historical record for people who are otherwise forgotten,” said Auslander, author of The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family.
Cemeteries can also reveal buried truths of our present. When Auslander first began taking his students to the historic Oxford Cemetery, it was to show them “one of the most visible expressions of inequality” — a racially segregated burial site. Soon, a grass-roots restoration movement began, bringing together African-American and white residents of Oxford.
In the course of this restoration, it came to light that public funds had been spent only to maintain the white side of the cemetery, while the story of a black woman named Kitty buried at the entrance to the white cemetery sparked a debate over the role of slavery in the history of the community.
“The cemeteries really became an arena through which people struggled over the much larger question of history and memory and belonging in the region and in the South,” Auslander said.
Echoes of this can be heard in more recent calls to clean the African-American side of Liberty Cemetery in Porterdale, where the fence posts that used to separate white from black still stand and the difference in care is marked. Porterdale City Manager Bob Thomson said the presence of the African-American cemetery was only recently brought to the town’s attention and that any neglect was unintentional. He also said that the town was in talks with the county to carry out more frequent maintenance.
Deborah Bell of the Newton County Historical Society, who is drawing up a list of potential sites for the county’s drive, said several factors regarding safety and accessibility have to be considered. She said that most cleanup initiatives are driven by interested volunteers, family members and churches, who should be taught how to properly clean a cemetery without compromising its historical integrity by moving items or inadvertently damaging stones.
“Most cemeteries have some damaged stones, and often well-meaning but sometimes inappropriate repairs ... with materials or techniques that can have long-term detrimental effects on the old stones,” she wrote in an email. “Most modern epoxies and mortars dry to such a great strength or hardness that they can actually cause more damage to a stone. There are special types of mortars and epoxies that can be used to safely repair historic stone and brick.”
In 2009, Bell authored a comprehensive and colorful guide to the cemeteries of Newton County that includes descriptions of common motifs associated with gravestones, as well as an explanation of how these symbols changed over time with shifts in culture and living conditions.
For example, the harsh reality of early settlement in the 17th and 18th centuries produced stark headstone art which later gave way to more euphemistic images such as flowers and angels in the 19th and 20th centuries. Broken branches, symbolizing a life cut short, and lambs, associated with innocence, are often seen on children’s headstones. Some graves feature the pearly gates of heaven and a crown, symbolizing the heavenly kingdom in Christianity. African-American cemeteries are likely to be located on land that was considered unsuitable for farming at the time of their creation, next to historically black churches or behind community graveyards that had been reserved for whites.
The locations of several Native American burial sites have not been disclosed by the county to protect them.
Frank Moss, a local resident who recently founded a private company specializing in cemetery maintenance, said the community should spearhead a regional preservation plan in the face of rapid development and an increasingly mobile population.
“(Our predecessors) made this country what it is,” said Moss, who has proposed overseeing a joint private-public venture for cemetery care. “We care about our foregone people.”
For Auslander, cemetery maintenance can be educational and healing, something he says he witnessed firsthand during the Oxford cleanup.
“It’s so important for the moral health of a community,” he said. “So much of that history can only be heard through cemeteries ... It is the closest thing we have to time travel.”