As the summer draws to a close and this blog nears its end for the year, I’ll devote my final post to reflecting on my experiences at the cemetery. I’ve spent nearly four months in a cemetery this summer, and I still enjoy the looks I get when telling people what my summer job was. As cliche as it may sound this summer has taught me a great deal not only about what it takes to preserve history, but also on the kind of role a cemetery plays in every day human life.
Every day at Woodland our team has striven to preserve history, whether by physically repairing monuments that go back as far as the early 1800s, or by conducting research to uncover the stories of those the stones were made for. But over this summer, we were forced to approach history in a slightly different manner than we are used to as academics. As students, we were accustomed to writing history in an academic manner, presenting research to be critiqued by our instructors and fellow students. This work was seldom read outside of the confines of academia. The same is true for the vast majority of academic publishing. What set our time at Woodland apart was that we actively sought to bring history out of the academic setting and into the public setting, which turned out to be an entirely new challenge for us.
When working on the Scottish site, we developed our display in a way that allowed curious visitors to walk among the stones and clearly experience the relics themselves. When we repaired buried or broken stones, it was not because they yielded new knowledge to us, it was because we wanted them to be accessible for the next hundred years to curious onlookers. Our research was not presented in 12 point font, Times New Roman, and cited according to the Chicago Manual of Citations. (For those who don’t know, this is generally the default way to present research in social sciences) Instead, it was published on our blog, on our Facebook, and on our Instagram, and aimed at the general public. Presenting it in such a manner is a vastly different experience for us, and one that we had to adjust to. We spent less time concerned with ensuring our writing was of the proper tone, and more time attempting to share knowledge and stories as far as possible. It was an entirely new experience that forced us to develop our public speaking skills and our outreach skills. Even on days where we were exhausted from work, we forced ourselves to be presentable, friendly, and approachable to curious onlookers who might have a few questions about what our work entails. Or perhaps they were wondering what I was doing wandering into old cemetery sections carrying a shovel.
In addition to approaching history in such a new way, I also learned of what a cemetery has to offer a society. A cemetery does not exist to serve the dead. The dead do not require a gravestone, a casket, or an urn. They do not require a funeral service, and they are certainly incapable of demanding such things. We as human’s could dispose of our dead in a far more efficient way than we do, but we choose not to. This is because cemeteries exist primarily to serve the living. It is the living who place value in laying our loved ones to rest in a dignified manner. Loss of a family member or friend is something every human being experiences throughout their life. It is a traumatic experience, and cemeteries allow us to begin the process of celebrating one’s life, preserving their legacy, and healing our broken hearts. We are provided with the peace of mind that comes with knowing that a loved one’s remains will be cared for, will be protected, and will remain undisturbed. A tombstone allows us to preserve their legacy, again giving us the comfort of mind that their life was not in vain, that they are not forgotten. A dignified funeral service provides families with a vital sense of closure, that allows the healing process to begin. The living need a physical place to mourn, and to remember. The memorial to John Parkinson Jr. is one such example of this. If you have not read my previous blog post, it was about a 17 year old Union soldier who died at Atlanta during the American Civil War, but is memorialized here at Woodland. Unable to return their son’s body to London, the Parkinsons decided to erect a memorial for John anyways, to provide themselves with a place to mourn, and with a sense of closure.
When we repair gravestones and display them in a dignified matter, we are serving those family and friends who paid dearly to have their loved one memorialized long into the future. The fight against time is a battle we can’t win, eventually all of the stones we work on, and all of the stones at Woodland will crumble and decay. But if we continue to make them accessible for at least the next several generations, then we can feel that we have done our part in both fulfilling grieving families’ desires, and preserving history as well.
It has been a privilege to serve at Woodland over the past several months, and an experience I will never forget. I carry with me great memories, new skills, and a sense of accomplishment.
An ancient Greek proverb states “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” I think it summarizes why monument conservation is a worthy pursuit well.
Signing off for the last time,