Written by Sonja Ingram
There is a cemetery in the woods behind my house. I have walked to it many times and thought about the people buried there. There are no angels or crosses, only trees that have grown up over time. At least fifty graves exist, all but one are either unmarked or have only small fieldstone markers. The one inscribed marker reads the following:
Died Dec. 25, 1925.
Age 40 Yrs.
May The Resurrec
tion Find Thee
On The Bosom Of
I have also visited many grand cemeteries; Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond is one of my favorites. Hollywood Cemetery is a beautiful and historic place, with many famous and infamous people resting there including Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, and Confederates Jefferson Davis and J.E.B. Stuart.
Many Victorian cemeteries such as Hollywood Cemetery were created in the garden style with the use of ornamental trees and shrubs and numerous striking statues of angels, urns and broken columns — all of which portrayed the elaborate funerary symbolism popular during the Victorian era. Many crypts and mausoleums are considered architectural masterpieces that confirmed the individuality, greatness, and often the wealth of the people buried within.
On the other hand, many cemeteries of the same era, for the disadvantaged and rural populations in Virginia, consisted of plots carved from fields and woods with little decoration — except perhaps periwinkle and yucca — and simple (if any) grave markers.
On the 1920 Census, Martha Flipping was (perhaps wrongly) listed as being age 39. An unmarried black woman, she was considered the head of the household and had living with her, her daughter, Mary, who was 22 and also single, and two granddaughters, Dolly, age seven and Victoria, age two. Martha was listed as having no occupation and could neither read nor write; however, Mary could read and write and she and Dolly were both listed as "washerwomen" for a private residence.
The 1920 census provides many tantalizing clues about Martha Flipping, her life, her family, her community and it also brings up many questions. Would these clues and questions about an important ingredient of history that is often ignored — rural African American women during Jim Crow and before the Civil Rights era — be "brought to life" if this cemetery had been somehow destroyed?
Many cemeteries can provide an abundance of information through the study of cemetery landscapes, gravestone designs and religious and mortuary practices, but rural cemeteries can provide more fundamental information about the lives of the disenfranchised or poor — information that may not be available elsewhere. Martha Flipping was illiterate, and likely didn't leave behind any diaries or letters.
Unfortunately, in many cases, Virginia cemetery laws are not being upheld and many rural, abandoned family cemeteries are being impacted and destroyed by incorrect development, logging and farming practices.
For all of these reasons, and to help raise awareness about these threats, historic family cemeteries were listed on Preservation Virginia’s 2010 Endangered List. The Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources hosted a cemetery protection workshop recently in Richmond, and will now hold the workshops at other venues across the state. Cemeteries and cemetery protection measures are also featured on the department's Virginia Archaeology Month (October) 2010 poster.
Hopefully these efforts will provide some of the education needed to save what remains of Virginia's abandoned cemeteries.
Sonja Ingram is a field representative for Preservation Virginia and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.