There are cemeteries with thousands of visitors each year: Graceland; Rosehill; Springfield’s Oak Ridge, which has spaces for tour buses in its parking lot; Arlington National.
On the other extreme, some graveyards are entirely forgotten – lost in the deep woods, monuments scattered or plowed under. Or, they may be known only to local authorities, or the owner of the land or neighbouring land. Monuments might be piled haphazardly in a corner of the cemetery, or around the bases of trees; the grass is cut infrequently or not at all.
In such places, one might drive by a seemingly empty field, a grove of trees, or an ordinary fence, not knowing a graveyard is there.
Some of these cemeteries, however, are known to local historians and to the researchers of the U.S. Geological Survey, which recorded their latitude and longitude, perhaps before the cemetery was “forgotten” to the general public. Using their list, graveyard explorers like me have found and walked through some of these cemeteries – alongside or within farmers’ fields, in woods, on a golf course, in a scrap yard.
In rural Hancock County, Illinois, next to a farm field lies a seemingly empty grassy area, bordered with trees. It doesn’t look like a graveyard at all, even when one begins walking through it. But behind one large tree (near the centre of the above photo), leaning against the trunk, are the only two remaining headstones.
A small patch of woods near Kankakee conceals the Old State Hospital Cemetery – which is barely there at all, with one visible headstone and a scattering of fragments.
Drake Cemetery, in Boone County, also has just a handful of tombstones. Surrounded by woods, and with the few stones knocked to the ground, it is not recognizable as a cemetery from even a few feet away.
In some cases, however, efforts are made to restore and recognize forgotten cemeteries. Nearby cities or other authorities often take over the property, repair monuments, and erect signs. In Palatine, Wolfrum Cemetery has been restored; though every monument had been knocked down and damaged in the past, they are now set into concrete frames in the ground, and a sign informs the visitor of the cemetery’s name and overseeing authority.
In the southwest part of Cook County, Sauerbier-Burkhardt Cemetery has undergone a similar restoration. For years, hikers told tales of gravestones in the woods near 135th street. In the 1984, the site was acquired by the Cook County Forest Preserve District; and when a residential subdivision was built nearby, the county set the stones upright, added a bicycle and walking trail that passed alongside the cemetery, and erected a sign detailing the history of the Sauerbier and Burkhardt families.
Local Boy Scouts adopt forgotten cemeteries as community service projects. For many years, a nondescript chain link fence enclosed an overgrown clearing, hidden away in woods on a golf course in Glenview. When I visited the site in the late 1990s, nothing at all could be seen behind the locked gate except weeds growing to the height of a man. But now, the cemetery is open, well kept, and properly marked: Dewes Cemetery is cared for by a Scout, as the new sign proudly states.
With the technology available to us, no cemetery need be forgotten. The lists assembled by the US Geological Survey are invaluable in locating these places; they can then be visited, photographed, and documented on web sites like this one. Though monuments may be scattered, broken, face down, or weathered to illegibility, we can still commemorate and preserve these sacred places.