Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Who preserves history when families leave?

A couple of weeks ago, the Bangor Daily News in Maine had an interesting story about the maintenance of cemeteries in small towns after families move away and the towns begin to lose population. It's an interesting, and often not discussed, topic that touches on the effects of rural out-migration and the preservation of the memories of loved ones who have long ago passed.

As the article notes, rural New England faces unique challenges in cemetery maintenance. After all, New England was the among the first areas in the now-United States to be settled and has its oldest cemeteries. As a result, it also has a high proportion of graves of people whose loved ones have long left and who have no living known relatives in these communities who can continue to maintain their grave sites.

The history of migration within the United States is as old as the country itself. As the wheels of the Industrial Revolution began to roll, rural New Englanders began to move to the growing mill towns that began to spring up across the region. As the United States expanded westward, as did New Englanders, moving west in hopes of finding economic prosperity. As people left small towns in search of economic fortune, they left behind generations of history. As the article notes, it is the cemeteries that date from the period of westward expansion and the Industrial Revolution that are the most troublesome to maintain. Towns generally maintain the oldest graves out of respect for the founding fathers of their communities but it is the people who came after and whose families left that present the biggest issue. Since towns are not able to provide funding to maintain these graves, the cemeteries themselves are often left to provide funds. As Superintendent Todd Frederick of the First Parish Cemetery in York, Maine said, “[y]ou can’t charge anyone because there’s nobody to bill.”

The cost of outmigration to rural communities is often borne in ways that are often not thought of. As the percentage of Americans living in rural spaces continues to decline, it might be wise to think about the cost of maintaining the history that they leave behind. Communities are after all made stronger when they remember their history and who came before them.

Of course, you could get lucky and have your family cemetery end up adjacent to suburban development (which is often maintained, if only for its aesthetic appeal to its retail neighbor), this situation is surprisingly common in former small New England towns that end up enveloped by sprawl and development.  It could even end up mere feet from Interstate 95, as was the case for the Mitchell-Hatch Cemetery in Kennebunk, Maine.

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