Improving Our Understanding of Statewide Cemetery Preservation Efforts

By Carlyn Hammons, THC Cemetery Preservation Program Specialist

Texas Historical Commission (THC) staff seeks to improve the ways we educate and encourage preservationists across the state. These efforts include an evaluation of public need and agency priorities, along with consideration of the services necessary to address those needs and priorities.

THC’s Cemetery Preservation Program’s recent initiative demonstrates this type of proactive planning. Because County Historical Commissions (CHCs) are active participants in cemetery preservation, THC staff has been working with them to gain a better understanding of the challenges communities face when trying to save cemeteries.

Through analysis of CHC annual reports, online surveys, and individual interviews, our program specialists have identified ongoing cemetery-related efforts across the state and the degree to which these efforts are protecting and promoting these historic and cultural resources.

Cemetery Preservation Program staff are now using this information to develop programming and services aimed at improving the capacity of CHCs to establish and achieve meaningful cemetery preservation goals.

One of the first priorities staff is addressing is the issue of inventory. It’s hard to protect a cemetery if you don’t know where it’s located, or that it even exists in the first place. The good news is that nearly all of the 126 counties that participated in this THC initiative keep some kind of county-wide inventory of cemeteries.

However, there’s significant variety in the type of information contained within these inventories, in how the inventories are organized and stored, and in how often they are reviewed and updated. This signals to staff that cemeteries in some areas of the state may be under-documented or that the documentation may inaccessible, outdated, or vulnerable to loss.

Staff also has some concerns about the primary ways CHCs report using the data they collect. For example, only half of participating counties use their inventories to help identify cemetery locations prior to development and construction; only one-quarter compare their county’s data with THC’s statewide Historic Sites Atlas; and only 16 percent use the data to assist the county’s GIS department to accurately place cemeteries on county-planning maps.

The low number of CHCs performing these activities is alarming because they are critical to safeguarding a cemetery against physical loss. Staff is working on guidance documents to empower CHCs to produce, maintain, and utilize inventories in the most effective, preservation-driven ways possible.

In addition to improving resource-identification efforts, staff also wants to help individuals and organizations to develop educational programming and heritage tourism activities that involve cemeteries in constructive and sensitive ways. One of the most common challenges reported by CHCs is a lack of public interest in historic cemeteries, resulting in dwindling support to preserve them. 

One-third of cemeteries in the state have no caretaker at all, and even more suffer from some degree of neglect. By creating positive experiences at well-designed educational programs, CHCs can raise awareness of the importance of preserving historic cemeteries, which is the first step in an individual’s personal path to active stewardship.

Recognizing the importance of cemetery preservation, the Real Places 2020 conference will feature more than 10 hours of cemetery-related workshops, sessions, and time with professionals to help registrants expand local programs. By attending, you’ll learn more about statewide cemetery preservation efforts, case studies from urban and rural communities, materials conservation, and how to protect the cemeteries that matter to you.

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