Friday, July 24, 2009

Time Team America in New Philadelphia

The most recent episode of Time Team America, an episode on New Philadelphia in Illinois, includes a short (roughly 2 minutes) view of the historic cemetery associated with the town, and a short discussion of the cemetery. The town was the first planned and established by a free African American in the United States. The property was purchased and the town laid-out by "Free Frank" McWorter. He was able to purchase the freedom of his wife, himself, and some of his children from a slave owner in Kentucky, then moved north to start a new life. It's a great episode, the history is compelling and it's a great view into what archaeology is really like. PBS is launching a new online portal where you can view full episodes of some of their shows, including Time Team America, check it out here.

Check out the links above - the Time Team site has a more in depth history of the site and Free Frank. The cemetery was particularly fascinating, although the show didn't spend a lot of time on it. It was African American only and set slightly away from the town. They make a quick reference to how African American funeral rituals were culturally distinct and important, and touch on a few theories regarding cemeteries (particularly the association with flowing water). If you'd like to know more, here's a couple of books:

Passed on: African American Mourning Stories - includes a lot of 20th century material, but also includes discussions of earlier traditions. Thought provoking - I'd never really considered the effect segregation and racism had on burials, funeral customs, and the funeral industry as a whole in both the North and South.

The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts - includes a short chapter on Vernacular or Folk grave markers, a great resource. Worth the price if you're interested in the field, but you might want to check it out in the library first. Vlach has produced several books on the subject, I don't think you'll go wrong with any of them as he seems a very solid scholar. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, July 17, 2009

Update on Mound in Oxford, Alabama

This morning I received an email from Dan Whisenhunt, a reporter with the Anniston Star letting me know that they broke the original story. I'd linked to the Birmingham News in my recent posts, but it appears they picked the story up off the AP wire from the Star. Usually when I'm not close enough to visit a site in person I attempt to find the newspaper for the town where the event happens or the closest large city - this technique let me down this time.

The Anniston Star has excellent coverage of this issue - they've been covering it extensively and doing what a news agency is supposed to do - finding out the facts concerned. So far they've uncovered the University of Alabama report on the site and associated letters, an article noting that supposedly the construction crews have orders to avoid the mound, an article on how taxpayer money was used for the destruction, and several others. Check out the links and site for more information. I apologize for missing the Anniston Star in the original round of posts, they have the most complete coverage of this story and I commend Dan Whisenhunt and the Anniston Star for the thoroughness of their research! Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, July 16, 2009

More from Oxford, Alabama

Oxford is a small town outside of Birmingham that is currently ripping down an ancient mound for cheap fill-dirt for a Sam's Club. The Birmingham news has reported on this issue, but apparently the city is now barring reporters from visiting the site according to rumors (guess that whole "First Amendment" thing was covered while the mayor et al were napping in high school). I stumbled across a blog post with a little more information. Apparently the city is claiming that the mound was "only used to send smoke signals". I'm honestly not sure what to say to that statement other than it's obvious they haven't had a survey of any sort done by a qualified individual. There is supposedly a mysterious survey done by "somebody at the University of Alabama" years ago, but a copy has yet to be produced. The story has made it to the iReporter site run by CNN

The greatest tragedy here is that there is no reason at all to destroy the mound. It is not in the way of construction - the city is just using it as a handy source of fill dirt, and hey if they happen to destory an irreplaceable part of local history too bad! In other areas of Alabama mounds such as this have been developed into parks and tourist sites - sure it' won't draw in millions of people a year, but it would draw a lot more people than the "spot where the mound used to be" will. That's what bothers me the most, this destruction is purposeless. It's akin to burning down a library just because it's there - it serves no good purpose and you lose so much. I actually travel through Oxford a few times each year when I visit my parents, by the time I travel through next the mound will most likely be gone.

Edit: This story was originally covered by the Anniston Star, see this post for more information. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Grave News: Oxford, AL using grave dirt to level Sam's Club parking lot

I'm not sure how they thought they'd slip this under the radar, but apparently the City of Oxford, Alabama and WalMart Stores, Inc are working together to destory a 1500 year old piece of history. The history in question is a large ceremonial mound (which likely contains human remains) that is being destroyed to provide fill dirt for a Sam's club parking lot. A local blogger has been covering the story here and here.

Now, I realize we cannot save every single site for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the land is needed, sometimes the site is in danger from natural forces, etc. In this case - none of that seems to apply. It's not that the Sam's Club is being built where the mound was, or that it was the only spot available. No, it seems that the city has taken it upon itself to destroy an ancient monument for cheap fill dirt. Think on that for a minute - irreplaceable history needlessly destroyed for nothing more than a bit of convience. Surely there are other sources of fill dirt in the area? Why isn't Walmart Stores, Inc stepping in to stop this destruction on their behalf? There's a lot of unanswered questions in this. I can say Wal-Mart/Sam's has moved even further down on my list of stores where I shop! Wonder if they're going to dynamite the veteran's monuments in town for gravel to pave the parking lot while they're at it?

Edit: More information and links to the Anniston Star, the newspaper which originally broke the story, here. Sphere: Related Content

Archaeology - Time Team America and more

I've mentioned in several posts I'm working on a graduate degree in Anthropology, specialing in historic archaeology. I've tried to keep this blog focused more on cemeteries and cemetery study, but every once in a while I have to go back to my roots academically. This is one of those days where I'll take a slight digression from the topic of cemeteries and talk about a new TV show featuring archaeologists and some other resources that describe exactly what an archaeologist does and how you become an archaeologist.
People don't seem to know what archaeologists do or how you become an archaeologist. Just like in any other profession you'll find a myriad of reasons people give, with one exception. I've never met anyone who said they became an archaeologist to get rich - just like historians, non-profit employees of all sorts, biologists, geologists, librarians, and many other fields you won't get rich. You can make a living, but that's it. On the other hand, well, very few other jobs have the combination of discovery, science, history, and storytelling we have on a daily basis! We very, very, rarely find "treasure" of the glittering sort and no, we don't keep the stuff we find (whether trash or treasure, it still tells us something).
So, the TV show - PBS has launched a new TV series, Time Team America. The first episode aired last week, or you can find it on the web-site if you missed it. The second episode airs tonight - and it's a good one. If you're interested in how humans got to North America this is the episode to see!
The Time Team America website also has a great introduction to archaeology as a career - how do you become an archaeologists, what types are there, and what they do. Check out the videos at the bottom of the page, particularly the "So You Want to be an Archaeologist" video! Another great resource is the about.com page on archaeology - it's maintained by an archaeologist, and on it you'll find links to everything you'd want to know, including digs you can volunteer at. Kris Hirst, who maintains the about.com page, also has an archaeology related blog. Most states have an archaeology association and they usually sponsor volunteer digs where you can go through a mini-fieldschool and get your hands dirty. In addition the USDA Forest Service offers their Passport in Time program - lots of volunteer opportunities.

There are lots of books out there related to archaeology in general, specific projects, and topics within archaeology. The book that really got me into archaeology is In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. This is a classic, and while some of the things presented have been refined and revised, it's still an excellent introductory text. The author, James Deetz, died a few years ago - I regret that I never met him in person. He's an excellent writer and makes the subject interesting and approachable even if you don't know anything about archaeology. Adrian Praetzellis has written two excellent introductory texts disguised as murder mysteries, Death by Theory and Dug to Death - not bad little reads, just keep in mind they're introductory texts. If you'd like something with a more nautical bent check out X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy. Ivor Noel Hume is a well known figure in Historical Archaeology, Martin's Hundred is a good introduction to his work. The recently published Jamestown, the Buried Truthlooks like a good read as well, if you'd like to hear how a project began. You can find a list of additional books here.

As far as this blog goes: I am working on a series of posts about photographing graves and cemeteries, including equipment and techniques. I have some other topics in mind, including more on moving cemeteries, preservation (shaving cream bad!), and whatever else I can come up with. If there's something you have a question about - whether it's related to cemeteries or to archaeology (or both), write in and let me know. You can leave a comment or email me through this page, either works. It may take me a while to get back to you, but I do eventually reply! Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cemetery Regulation

Time magazine has a very well written and presented article on the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal. One part stands out, the question of what lessons should we take from these events:

What lessons should be gleaned from this case? Paramount is the need for regulation that the death industry has fiercely resisted. Tom Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, which includes Chicago and Alsip, observes that manicurists and barbers must endure more regulatory hurdles than most cemetery operators, including its managers and groundskeepers. Illinois, like many states, is empowered to protect only the money families invest in burial lots — fees intended for cemeteries' long-term maintenance. In many states, there is no single agency, government or independent, that keeps up-to-date records of how many human bodies are buried or cremated on a cemetery's grounds, or the names of the buried.

I agree, for the most part. Generally I have mixed feelings on on government oversight, it seems that all too often it adds significant taxpayer expense for no apparent benefit (the recent banking meltdown is a prime example of ineffectual oversight, for example). In addition, this is frankly a lousy time to add to the regulatory workload of most states since they're already struggling to make ends meet fiscally! Still, as the Time article points out in many states a barber has to jump through more regulatory hurdles than a cemetery, even though the cemetery is promising its services will last far longer than a barber's.

Generally the funeral services industry has been resistent to regulation. The various organizations which make up the industry have relatively strong lobbyists and the industry as a whole is very profitable. Unfortunately this makes for a situation ripe for mismanagement and sorrow, like at Burr Oaks. The only option may be a strong state regulatory arm unless the funeral services industry as a whole shows itself willing and, more importantly, able to police themselves. In the Burr Oaks case alone there are multiple failures highlighted, including:

lack of oversight - there are no checks in the system of cemetery record keeping. I'm sure there is plenty of oversight in managing the financial matters, but that is not enough. One person should not have sole, unfettered, access to the cemetery records - in an age of cheap copiers, scanners, and computers there is no excuse.

lack of foresight - tying in to the lack of oversight, there appears to be no planning for disaster. Even without nefarious action by the only employee tasked with maintaining and overseeing the records they could be damaged or destroyed by any number of forces including a fire in the building, floods, even insect damage! Once again, there is no excuse for not having copies of the records off-site, whether in an environmentally controlled storage unit, corporate headquarters, or a server somewhere.

A well thought out regulatory body, whether governmental or industry based, would be able to serve not only as a force to enforce laws and regulations, but also as a repository for cemetery records. Such records are invaluable not only for family who may be seeking the grave of a loved one, but also for geneologists, historians, and statisticians. Of course, such a body would also oversee cremations and require similar records - date of cremation, name/location of facility, etc.

Now, as I've mentioned many times previously, the focus of this blog is more on history and preservation rather than legislation. I'm not a part of the funeral industry. Personally I feel that there is room for much improvement, but as a whole most people involved in the industry are there to try to do their best for grieving families. In a case like Burr Oaks there is plenty of blame to go around - as I mentioned earlier some of the comments on the Chicago area news sites indicate that there had been complaints filed about the cemetery that were never followed up. The lack of a single authority makes it very difficult for families to find who to contact and for local authorities to act. When the local law enforcement are deciding how to best use their limited resources, enforcement of cemetery regulation is going to be low on the risk because a) most of the time there is no immediate danger to life and b) they may not know if they are allowed to enforce those regulations! All in all, some sort of reform seems to be needed. A good start would be for the various parts of the industry - funeral directions, cemeteries, and others to work out an industry regulatory body that works - it'd save the states a lot of trouble. Sphere: Related Content

More on Burr Oak

CNN and the Chicago Tribunal have further details on this case. The sheriff's office has declared the entire cemetery a crime scene and the cemetery is closed to further burials at this time. Disturbingly, the Chicago Tribunal is reporting that "Babyland", an area set aside for infant burials, is either completely missing or many burials are missing. Lawsuits have been filed against the company that holds the cemetery, Perpetua LLC. Businessweek has the following descrition of Perpetua:


Company Overview

Perpetua, Inc. operates as a funeral home and cemetery acquisition/development company. It specializes in the areas of personalized funerals and the use of technology in the death care industry. The company owns and operates funeral homes and cemeteries in New York, Indiana, Missouri, and Illinois. Perpetua is based in Tuscon, Arizona.


To their credit, they do appear to have been one of the parties who contacted the sheriff regarding the removal of bodies from plots. They do not seem to follow good business practices in several other way though - for example, it appears that many of the records are missing or destroyed. Why were there no off-site copies of the records? There appears to have been no oversight or auditing process of the local cemetery records beyond finances. Cases such as the Tri-State Crematory in Georgia and now Burr Hill highlight the need for independent oversight and inspection, the same sort of oversight seen in many other industries.

There are rumors in the comments on some of the Chicago-area news sites that families had noticed the missing gravestones and disturbed graves and had filed complaints with the various authorities in charge of cemeteries in the area with no results. Hopefully they'll go to the press and push for their stories to be heard.

Update: 10:20 PM EST 7-11-2009

CNN is continuing to follow the story on their front page
, they've caught up with some of the local Chicago news outlets in reporting about "Babyland". I'll keep on following this story but I'm not going to do more than one update per day unless something happens that warrants it. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, July 10, 2009

More from Alsip, Illinois (update on Scam and Scandal in Illinois)

Update on yesterday's post: CNN is reporting that police have arrested Carolyn Towns, Keith Nicks, Terrance Nicks and Maurice Daley. The count of disturbed graves is up to 300 and families coming to the cemetery to check on their loved ones graves. Some families have visited graves only to find a new headstone with a different name in place. CNN also reports that Emmet Till's original coffin has been found at the graveyard in a storage building, however, he was buried in a new coffin following a 2005 exhumation. CNN's headline is a little misleading, it doesn't appear that his grave has been disturbed since 2005. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Grave News: Scam and Scandal in Illinois

The Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, has been the victim of grave-robbing employees.  In a scheme that involved selling lots for cash under the table, bodies were removed from unmarked and seldom visited graves, dumped at the back of the property, and the plots re-sold.  The story is covered in the Chicago Sun Times, Lalate News, and even the BBC.  According to these sources as many as 100 bodies may have been removed in order to re-sell the plots.  Burr Oak is the first African American cemetery in Chicago.  It seems to be owned privately and the actual owners aren’t implicated in this particular scandal but are being heavily criticized for extreme lack in oversight of the cemetery.  Apparently 5 employees have been arrested at this point, including one who appears to have effectively had sole access to the cemetery records.  This individual has apparently destroyed records in an effort to hide the illegal activities – which spanned 4 years. 

Unfortunately, cemetery regulation seems to regularly get particularly short shift.  Admittedly most states are facing tough times right now, and inspection of burial places, crematoriums, and other facilities aren’t high on the priority list, but is an inspection of some sort every 3-5 years really out of the question? 

If you have loved ones buried in a cemetery where you suspect the management is…lacking, your options may be limited.   Unless it’s gross violation of laws, such as illegally disinterring bodies and dumping them at the back of the cemetery, it may be difficult to get anyone to take notice.  Your best bet is to document as much as you can, for examples if monuments are being damaged through neglect take pictures and show the damage over time then contact the management.  If that doesn’t work contact local and state authorities.  If that doesn’t work it’s time to start pestering a local journalist – whether print or TV.  Be persistent, but polite, and you may be able to get results. 

Sphere: Related Content