Articles

They're Only Stones

A couple of stories about the local cemeteries and the importance of preservation.

Who's Henry?

A 47-year-old question.

The Forgotten Ones

Preserving our history.

WCCPS Invited to Seneca County

Assisting other groups.

Mike McCann Documents and Confirms Information He Finds on Area Graves

Success in Medina County by WCCPS member.

Students Looking for Graves

Positive association with the College of Wooster.

Graveyard Preservation

Some suggestions by Lynette Strangstad.

Please, Please, Please Treat Cemeteries with Respect

Up Front with NGS

They're Only Stones

Bonnie Knox
20 May 2001
“Ask Genie” article
Wooster Daily Record

They’re only stones, standing in silent rows, watching the years, decades and centuries go by. They’re only stones. But each one stands for a person, a living breathing person who walked and talked, loved and fought…and we need to respect that.

When the land we call Ohio and Wayne County was first parceled out, there was a provision in deeds for “public burying ground”. This was not to be owned by those people who lived then, and it isn’t to be owned by those who live now.  Deeds make this quite clear. Take out that family deed, dust it off, and sit a spell. Chances are, when you read it you will see the words “except for”. That means you bought the land – except for the portion that was then and is to always be a burying ground. Make no mistake, the chances are highly likely that these words are on your deed. So, you don’t own that little portion, no matter how much land you own around it. It is not yours to turn into a pretty garden or a planted field…period! Whatever would make us think we could take the bones of another family and desecrate them?

Many are the stories that are being exchanged these days by outraged families. The family members we refer to are the descendants of early Wayne County settlers whose gravesites and headstones have been defiled and destroyed.

One story started many years ago when a local farmer decided that the fifty or so graves on “his” property were no longer of any value to anyone. So as not to stir up any public outcry, this sly man only knocked down one or two stones at a time, by accident of course, then hauled them away. By the time some descendants of the deceased came back to visit from out west, the stones were all gone and the cemetery was neatly plowed and planted!

Another tale tells of a tiny cemetery that had become overgrown because the surviving “family” members also live out west. When someone asked the township trustees to clean up the cemetery a bit, they took it upon themselves, or allowed the farmer to smash up the headstones as part of the cleanup process. Please understand that one of those headstones was at least four inches thick! It had been broken in half just before my arrival on site. Luckily, I showed up before the “now useless” headstones were discarded. I have snapshots of the damage.

How about this story? A local genealogist happened upon a man attempting to clear some headstones from another small overgrown cemetery on what he claimed to be “his” land. When queried about his intentions, the reply was, “It’s a lovely spot, I’m going to build a house here.” When told, “You can’t do that!” His reply was, “Watch me!” The stones are completely gone, now. Investigation shows that those were some of the earliest burials in this area and one of the desecrated graves holds the bones of a Revolutionary War soldier!

As this article is being written, more disputes over cemetery ownership promise to take place in our county. Only the future knows whether a family of descendants will continue to have memorial stones left intact for their children to see. Or will an indifferent owner of adjoining property eventually have crops or a building planted there?

I am saddened by what is happening in Wayne County with some of our family cemeteries. No, it isn’t only happening in Wayne County. It is happening all across our great state and country. But Wayne County is OUR home and these are the graves of OUR ancestors who first cleared and planted these fields. That, to me, makes it personal.

The cemeteries some see as “abandoned” are not that- they are only “neglected.”  If they were truly abandoned, would there be stones to mark the sites so that the descendants could come back to find the resting place of their forebears?  I don’t think so. Why mark something you’ve abandoned and never intend to recognize again? That would be a foolish waste of time, wouldn’t it?

In 1993, a new Ohio law was enacted to require all cemeteries to register annually with the Ohio Division of Real Estate.  Over 3,000 cemeteries in Ohio now have a permanent six-digit ID#. When planning all road and building projects ODOT must conduct environs studies that reveal and protect lost or forgotten cemeteries.  Should we, as descendants of Wayne County pioneers and settlers, do any less?

The neighboring states have enacted strong laws to protect their historic cemeteries. Check the internet for programs in Indiana, Illinois, and Maryland, for example, and you’ll be very impressed with the strides they’ve made. We can do the same thing.  I received a pamphlet in the mail today that is titled, “Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites, Inc.”  Their motto is “to build the future, we do not have to destroy the past.  They are listed as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in 1991. 

The most important question to be asked is, “Who owns the cemetery?”  There are basically three types of ownership in Ohio: township, municipal and private.  Ohio laws pertaining to cemeteries under the jurisdiction of townships can be found under Ohio Revised Code (ORC) Chapter 517; ORC chapter 759 addresses cemeteries under the jurisdiction of cities, villages and joint municipal/township cemeteries; and ORC Chapter 1721 pertains to cemeteries under the jurisdiction of private cemetery associations.  Anyone interested in preventing or reporting vandalism at cemeteries should contact law enforcement officers.  According to ORC Chapter 2909.05, this is a fourth degree felony. That’s right, I said felony. Violations of ORC Chapter 2927.11, defacing commemorative markers is a second degree misdemeanor.

So, it isn’t just “fun and games” to desecrate a cemetery, it’s a crime. The problem is, our laws need to be strengthened to prevent more of this desecration. We need to contact Rep. Jim Carmichael and Sen. Ron Amstutz to let them know that we care about our cemeteries and we need to demand that they pass stronger legislation to protect our cemeteries in the future. I’ve made my calls.

Chapter 2927.11 of ORC says this: No person, without privilege to do so, shall purposely deface, damage, pollute or otherwise physically mistreat any of the following:

  1. the flag of the United States or this state;
  2.  
  3. any public monument
  4.  
  5. any historical or commemorative marker….cemetery….or site of great historical or archeological interest.

A violation is punishable by a fine of $2,500.00 – and up!  Don’t forget, “cemetery” means any place of burial.

Nobody is above the law and it’s time we all realized that. Maybe that little spot on “your land” would be a lovely place for a house. It isn’t yours! Perhaps another ¼ acre would be nice to farm. Don’t do it! Respect those who have gone before us as you hope to be respected after you’re gone. Let’s do what’s right, simply because it is right.

Many counties around Ohio have begun Cemetery Preservation Associations. Do any of my readers think Wayne County should follow their lead?

Readers are invited to respond…