Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Recycled Tombstones

Recycled gravestones are used for all sorts of purposes, including building foundations, patios, stone walls, walkways, new gravestones, and, apparently, jetties. Sometimes, these stones are irregulars or decommissioned stones*, but sometimes, they're just stolen. I don't get too offended when I see a gravestone used as part of an old cemetery wall, but I can't stand it when stones are stolen or vandalized so that the sculpture can be sold as art.**

I don't believe in ghosts or supernatural retribution, but I do believe that stealing gravestones and selling them as "folk art" (or scrap metal) is deeply immoral. If you are buying or selling an antique gravestone, you'd better have all the papers/evidence to prove that it is actually an irregular or that it has been legitimately deaccessioned. Many actual gravestones have mistakes on them, so the presence of a misspelling or correction is not evidence that the gravestone was never used.

Don't steal gravestones. Take a picture.

*There have been several stories in recent years about Shaker gravestones being auctioned off or used for building projects. These are generally stones that were de-sanctified in some way after Shaker communities decided to replace individual stones with single markers for the whole group.

** This is separate from the ongoing debate over whether old gravestones should be preserved in museums and replaced by replicas. I tend to come down on the side of leaving the originals where everyone can enjoy them, but I can see the other side on this issue. What makes me sick is people who steal the gravestones for private collectors.


Larry Cebula said...

So I was visiting some folks in SE Missouri and a professor I know said "Hey come see what is in the back of my pickup." It was full of 19th century headstones, including one of the founder of the town.

Someone had clued him that a house that was about to be torn down had a lot of headstones in the yard. It turned out that some owner of the house had wanted a paved stone patio but did not have the money for paved stone. When my friend got there he found a big outdoor patio made of pilfered headstones. They were laid face down for discretion's sake.

Last I spoke with my friend he was going to the historical society with a surprise delivery. I wonder how that story ended?

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Wow. That's an amazing, but, unfortunately, probably not a unique story. Kudos to your friend for his rescue effort.

Graveyard security is something I feel very conflicted about. On the one hand, gravestones should be protected from people who will steal or deface them, but on the other, they should be open to all who want to see them. I hate it when graveyards (like the Phipps St. Cemetery in Charlestown) are locked up 24/7, but when they're not, you get situations like your friend's and like the Bell Rock Cemetery.

Little family graveyards in the Mid-Atlantic and South are particularly vulnerable. I wonder how many have been picked clean without anyone noticing?