Yes, it’s true… I’m a bona fide, officially-elected-by-the-peoples, Cemetery Trustee in my home town. The reasons I chose to run for the position are many and varied; not the least of which is my, obvious, love of them. I find, though, that the longer I serve the greater my appreciation is of, for lack of a better term, the other side of the coin. For, not only do I relish the role of crawler, but I have a keen insight into the view OF us and our kind held by many a Trustee, Superintendent, or family member. You’ll notice I ask of my readers, often, to “crawl with care”. This lends itself to far more than the obvious “be careful so you don’t get hurt” warning. No, it is also akin to the notion of do no harm, for even the best intentions can sometimes go awry.
Each cemetery that you enter will, obviously, have a unique set of regulations. Nearly all of them, however, will share a certain amount of identical, core restrictions that as crawlers we should be aware of. Things such as no picking of flowers/cutting of trees (whether wild OR cultivated), no alcohol, no soliciting, no littering, no gravestone rubbing (there are very few that I’m aware of in NH that actually still allow this), a speed limit of 10 (or maybe 15) mph, and open hours of sunrise to sunset. Pretty standard fare that all crawlers need to be aware of… regardless of whether they’re posted. Even without a sign, it’s a fair bet that these few standards are documented somewhere. Many add other restrictions, mine included, such as no dogs and no bikes/scooters/skateboards etc. Taken as a whole, such regulations are a sort of extension of a philosophy shared by many who work/volunteer in the cemetery business… that of “The dead don’t care, but the living should.”
Cemeteries are, first and foremost, a place for reflection for the families of those interred there and that fact alone takes precedence over anything else. Unless you are a crawler solely of those small, centuries old plots that show no evidence of life (pun intended) beyond a perfunctory mowing 4 or 5 times a year, then the cemeteries you’re visiting are also being visited regularly by those left behind. In the interest of their comfort, and the comfort of the local Trustees, I would humbly offer just a few suggestions as to how, I believe, one can “crawl with care”.
- If it’s OBVIOUS litter along the paths or roadways, don’t hesitate to pick it up. Broken glass, cans, crumbled cigarette packs/butts, candy wrappers, etc. are all fair game. If it’s within the grave areas and looks like litter but MIGHT be something else (ie: a full pack of cigarettes, a (believe it or not) can of beer, a cd case, a faded piece of paper/card/letter, a dried rose) it’s best to leave it. Odds are pretty good it isn’t “litter” in the true sense of the word, but rather it’s tchotchke; a memento or trinket having value only to the grieving person who left it. The same person will also be looking for it. By the same token, I wouldn’t move it “back” to the closest stone either… as it may not have originated from there. I know, I know… it seems strange that I’m telling you to leave odd little bits of “shtuff” lying around. Please, you have to just trust me on this. The placers know where they left them, and where they think they might blow away to, and they do call asking what happened to their things if they can’t find them.
- For the photographers, I realize it’s incredibly tempting at times to straighten that angel or windsock or whatever to make for a better photo… or maybe because it just looks so sad tilted at a 90 degree angle. Please don’t, as strange as it may sound, they’re sometimes tilted or broken intentionally. I had a woman who called me twice because someone… who I’m sure thought they were doing a kindness… threw away not one but two broken frog statues that were in the area of her sister’s grave. In truth, the elements were not to blame, as it was she who had broken them before placing them there. It had to do with something from their childhood… if I remember right it was a running joke about the only fight they’d ever had when she broke her sister’s favorite figurine. Better to err on the side of caution and just let it be. On the same vein, one should never cut or snap off “just one tiny branch” so you can better see the stone. Easily 8 or 9 times out of 10, that little clip (or nudge or straightening) will be noticed by the grave owner. Usually, they don’t like it… and usually we hear about it. I find tucking the errant branch behind the stone for photography purposes usually works just fine.
- Conversely to that, is what I like to call the “Micro Adopt-a-Grave” program. Even in the largest of active cemeteries, there are those older graves that are so obviously, and painfully, neglected beyond the caretaker’s mowing. Myself, I often like to choose one and do a quick, mini clean-up of the dead leaves, branches, trash, etc. surrounding the base. I also try, whenever I happen to pass a nursery or roadside vendor on my way there, to stop and buy a single flower to place on whichever small lot I might adopt that day. It’s my belief that everyone deserves to be remembered by somebody… even if only a passing stranger.
- If there is a funeral underway, or one that commences, as your crawling that is within your line of sight it’s best to stop wandering for a bit until it’s over. Extended family and friends are often the first to notice someone walking around with a camera… even if you’re quite a distance away… and in their emotional state be bothered by the notion of someone photographing graves. Even if, on any other day, they might’ve cared less. Besides, the average graveside service lasts only about 30 minutes and the majority of the time the bereaved all leave at once… a perfect opportunity to take a bit of a rest.
- Here is one where some of my fellow trustees and I will disagree… children. I fully endorse children taking part in crawls. I do… I believe they should be encouraged to soak up the atmosphere, history, and art that our cemeteries have to offer. They do get restless, though, and because of that some may frown on them hanging out with mom or grandma for a day of wandering amongst the stones. But, I believe that the laughter and joy… life… that children bring along with them wherever they go can never be a bad thing. It’s simply a question of educating them in sympathy and empathy… for in doing so one ensures that they’ll know when their “joie de vivre” may need to be subdued. That and, of course, teaching them a respect for stones around them… in that they’re not for climbing .
- Lastly, for today, I’d like to step out of the cemetery and into the “office”. Genealogy is huge these days… huge! I myself climbed aboard the ancestry train many, many years ago and thoroughly enjoy it, just as I enjoy responding to inquiries about historic cemetery records in my town. I would, however, make a request on behalf of trustees everywhere as to how the information is sought. I can’t tell you how much easier a phone call or email BEFORE you come and see us makes the process… it may even save you a trip. It is the sad nature of cemeteries that records are often scattered and incomplete. Particularly in smaller towns. Trustees/sextons in the past, and quite often still, are not afforded office space and thus the records are shifted from home to home and hand to hand. Often, pinpointing the information that you’re looking for can’t be done in five minutes… which is what some genealogists believe when they arrive. By emailing us, we have the time to find the information you’re looking for… and oftentimes we can give you MORE than you knew needed. I, myself, make it a practice to reply with neighboring interment info, a photocopy of that portion of the map, detailed directions to the cemetery, and a photograph of the stone in response to email inquiries that may only have sought a single name. I do this in appreciation of the time and understanding afforded to me by the genealogist.
That’s just a couple of thoughts of the top of my head. I’m sure as we go along other Trustee tidbits will occur to me that I’ll feel compelled to share. Wait, though, I have to ask… do I sound like a snot? I don’t mean to… and I don’t mean to imply that Trustees and Sextons necessarily get annoyed by these calls. We don’t… rest assured that interacting with the living is an equally rewarding part of jobs and one that most trustees thoroughly enjoy.
Thanks for listening to my venting… until next time, you guessed it, crawl with care!