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Gone, but not forgotten

Ashleigh Staples of Birmingham looks over a grave at Auburn’s Pine Hill Cemetery.

Jordan Mahaffey doesn’t see dead people.

Instead, her vision when visiting a cemetery has more to do with survivors than deceased. That’s because Mahaffey, a history graduate from the University of West Alabama, is more apt to pay attention to what is on top of the grave than what’s in it.

“I see artifacts,” Mahaffey says, referring to headstones and grave markers. “They provide you with a history of the community and how individuals felt about that person.”

On this day, however, Mahaffey, along with a dozen or more volunteers and an archeological team from the University of Alabama, are helping reclaim an almost forgotten, overgrown and unmarked cemetery situated just outside the fenced-in Morning Star cemetery in rural Sumter County.

The overgrown field and woodlands are being cleared and the UA team plans to scan the area with ground-penetrating radar to locate graves. An earlier scan revealed up to 10 unmarked graves.

“I want to find my baby brother. He died when he was one year old. I remember coming here as a little girl with my mother to visit his grave,” says Ella Edwards. Her family moved to Michigan when she was a child; others in the community did basically the same, leaving the cemetery unattended for decades.

Across Alabama, numerous cemeteries – in many cases the only remainders of once thriving communities – are imperiled by abandonment, isolation, occasional vandalism and sometimes even good intentions, says Ted Urquhart, president of the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance.

The alliance, a non-profit, volunteer group, was organized to locate and register all cemeteries and encourage their preservation and maintenance. Similarly, the Alabama Historical Commission maintains a record of the state’s historical cemeteries.   

The goal is twofold: Honor the dead, and help maintain historic structures like headstones, tombstones and statuary, which, much like outdoor museums, tell the stories of communities and the people who inhabited them. 

“People do not think twice about the value of preserving historic structures, and it is time we need to begin to think about structures in historic cemeteries in the same light,” says Margo Stringfield, a University of West Florida archaeologist and anthropologist. “Markers and monuments, in addition to names and dates, reflect individual choice, changing fashions, access to and choice of materials, trade patterns and changing communities.”

Despite good intentions, sometimes the efforts of well-meaning volunteers and descendants result in damage to headstones and tombstones from machinery and chemicals and soaps intended to clean the stones, says Stringfield.

Stringfield suggests that anyone considering extensive work at a cemetery enlist help from the community and groups that might seem far removed from preservation, like bird watchers or garden clubs.  Such groups can offer help with beautification efforts, but also with publicity; if people understand that cemeteries can be things other than places to bury the dead, they’re more likely to help with their preservation.

Eric Sipes, senior archaeologist with AHC’s historic preservation division, says planning is essential before doing any preservation efforts in a cemetery. AHC offers sample plans.

“An overall plan should be developed that establishes goals, prioritizes activities, and develops an annual maintenance schedule,” Sipes says.

When it comes to intensive work, call in professionals, Sipes says. The Alliance tries to have representatives from each of Alabama’s 67 counties to assist, and the AHC is also a useful source for preservation efforts.

Cemetery preservationist Jordan Mahaffey and resident Ella Edwards try to size up overgrown acreage that may contain graves adjacent to Morning Star Cemetery in Sumter County.

Stories to tell

Alliance member Greg Jeane, a retired geography professor at Auburn and Samford universities, said cemeteries and graves have evolved over the years to reflect how societies view death and other cultural aspects. From simple stone-covered graves – a practice some believe was carried over from Ireland – to elaborate stone workmanship, cemeteries and graves have stories to tell about individuals and communities.

In recent decades, graves have come to directly reflect the individual’s life, whether it be removable symbols or airbrushed headstone.

“Whether it is marbles or a cowboy boot or a toy car, it is definitely linked to some passion of the deceased,” Jeane says. “That sentiment has evolved into modern grave marker art, so a tombstone might have an 18-wheeler carved into the stone, or an air-brushed picture of the deceased holding their cat.”

Ashleigh Staples, like Mahaffey, is among several in the younger generations that are drawn to the older cemeteries because of their historical value. The Birmingham resident attended an Alliance meeting in May to learn more about preservation.   

“As a child I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and we often visited cemeteries where family members rested,” says Staples, 23. “My job requires that I travel throughout Alabama, so I’ve made a habit of stopping to appreciate the cemeteries and history along the way. Visiting cemeteries has become one of my favorite hobbies because every grave tells a story.”

Despite a degree in history and a background in archaeology, Mahaffey’s work at UWA is unrelated to her efforts involving primarily African-American cemeteries in Alabama’s Black Belt region, and specifically stamped lettered tombstones.   

“Because of the work I did as a student, I have become a cemetery person,” says Mahaffey, 26. “People will just call me because they have heard that I work to preserve and document cemeteries.”

Edwards says Mahaffey has been a tremendous help in aiding her efforts to at least locate and provide a marker of some type to each grave, even though they may not know who is buried there.

Her brother’s grave, however, may have already been found.

There beneath the tall grasses is a clump of irises rising out of the ground.

“We couldn’t afford to buy flowers for his grave, so we dug up flowers from the yard and planted them up here in this very area,” she says.

Do’s and don’ts of grave marker cleaning

• Do examine the stone before any cleaning. If there are cracks or decay, leave it alone because pressure could damage the stone.

• Do use soft brushes and tap water to clean stones. Some biological products are available that will not harm the stone.

• Do not use any acids, bleaches, household detergents or pressure washers to clean a stone.

• Do consult with a professional when considering any repairs to stones or statuary.

Sources: Alabama Historical Commission and the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance.

For additional information contact the AHC at and the