Older cemeteries are visible, tangible links with people who made history — ordinary individuals as well as famous people.
But a cemetery is more than a collection of interesting historical data, as precious and revealing as that may be. It is also a place — an open space populated by monuments and vegetation, altogether forming a very particular and revealing part of our built environment.
There are things to be learned from the overall layout and arrangement of the monuments. We can note the nature and quality of the materials; we can see the skill of the monument makers and observe the richness of the symbolism. We can wonder at the age of the trees and the choice of species and imagine the look of the surrounding landscape in earlier times. We can speculate on what prompted this location to be chosen for a cemetery and how the presence of the cemetery has influenced the neighborhood in which it is located.
Older cemeteries demonstrate their value as a cultural heritage resource in different ways. They have aptly been called outdoor classrooms. For students of all ages, they offer endless possibilities for continuing education involving both natural and historical resources. Some cemeteries promote recreational use of their grounds by maintaining extensive and well-labeled collections of plants and trees, by welcoming hikers, cyclists, photographers, and birdwatchers, and by organizing walking tours and outdoor chamber-music concerts.
Cemeteries can supplement community park systems and enhance adjacent public open spaces, while larger, park-like cemeteries can also provide valuable habitats for songbirds and other wildlife.
The character of a cemetery changes with the passage of time. There are active cemeteries, which accept interments, and there are inactive cemeteries — some closed but still maintained, and others simply abandoned. Time also inevitably alters the landscape within and around a cemetery. Weathering, often aided by environmental pollutants, can damage monuments and structures, as can accidents, vandalism, and neglect. Well-intentioned interventions may obliterate the original relationships among carefully laid out parts of the cemetery. Maintenance costs, aging infrastructure, changing surroundings and context, and public liability are pressures facing all cemeteries.
Helping our cemeteries survive these pressures is vital. Our goal must be to preserve and showcase those elements that give a cemetery its value as a cultural resource — including its architectural and landscape heritage, its educational, interpretative, and contextual value, and last but not least, its value as a record of social and family history, which is of special importance to those connected to the people interred. In summary, our cemeteries, each with its own history of creation, development, and growth, form an irreplaceable part of our cultural heritage.