Like people, it’s no secret that from the moment a cemetery is “born”, it is already dying. Initially land for plots is plentiful and revenues roll in to maintain and improve the facilities. But for most, the space for selling new plots eventually runs out (especially in urban cemeteries) and perpetual care fees even if invested well can’t keep up with the cost of maintenance. Each cemetery faces an inevitable decline into obscurity and neglect without infusions of cash.
Aside from the family members of those buried in one of these “lost” cemeteries, this situation pains no one more than genealogists — not only do we depend on well-maintained cemeteries for access to records, but also for providing a safe environment for our wanderings. That’s why I’m pleased when I find a examples of how some cemeteries are finding innovative ways to reverse the downward spiral of decay.
One such place is the Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery. Founded in 1829 and serving as the final resting place of many Jersey City, New Jersey founders as well as for soliders from the Revolutionary War to the present day, the cemetery has a rich history but also a checkered past. Declining revenues and financial mismanagement by past trustees caused the cemetery to fall into disrepair by the turn of this century and finally abandoned in 2008. But a new cemetery board of trustees made of caring volunteers is turning things around with a mix of community events and Internet technology.
Funds are needed for clearing the detritus of years of neglect on the grounds. Ongoing maintenance of the grounds and buildings are needed and the deteriorating cemetery records need restoration and preservation. The cemetery built and launched a modern website to serve as the communication hub for all these fundraising efforts. They use email marketing to keep people aware of upcoming events and they have an active Facebook page with over 750 fans. I haven’t found a Twitter account yet or any YouTube videos, but I’m sure those will come along eventually if they help spread the message and aid fundraising efforts.
The Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery uses these channels not only to solicit donations directly, but also to promote innovative community fundraising events including:
“Ghost of Uncle Joe’s Halloween” costume ball and rock show
“Old Time Wakes” – Oral stories by legendary storyteller Bob Leach
“Shakespeare at the Cemetery” – a theater performance
To some, the idea of of holding concerts and theater performances in a cemetery may be anathema, but I think its a great way to get the community invested in the preservation of this cemetery and making its records more accessible to those that need them. The “spooky” draw of it all may help get kids into learning about genealogy and history instead of defacing it. It also harkens back to the “garden cemetery” movement of the 19th century when cemeteries were as much park & recreation facilities for the public enjoyment as they were utilitarian places to bury the dead.
It’s hard to say where all this social media and internet tech will take the Jersey City Cemetery but I can’t help but think its a positive model for other struggling cemeteries — embrace the future to help preserve the past!