A state agency is encouraging Illinois residents to protect pieces of their past.
“The preservation of historic grave markers is important; it is doable; and it is our responsibility as a community,” said Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) Acting Director Catherine Shannon. “The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency encourages citizens to preserve these markers even if they aren’t connected to your ancestors.”
Springtime encourages people to do a little spring cleaning, both indoors and out, and sometimes that cleaning can involve old, broken grave markers.
According to the IHPA, as land values increase and more land is sought for agriculture or development use, small burial grounds can sometimes be looked upon as obstacles, especially if the current property owner has no connection to those buried there.
Removing any part of a cemetery without state permission is a violation of the Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act. However, with a permit issued by the agency and some initial guidance, these small family cemeteries can be preserved and still accommodate land use in the surrounding area.
Of Bureau County’s more than 100 identified cemeteries, more than 40 are either inactive or have disappeared completely.
The Presbyterian Cemetery, the Highland Cemetery east of Buda, the Smith Family plots and the Clarion and Rice cemeteries in Clarion have all been plowed into farmland, with some of the headstones moved to other cemeteries.
Much of the Miller Cemetery in Bureau is beneath the asphalt of Route 26.
Other cemeteries, like the Catholic Cemetery in Indiantown Township and the Lyford/Fifield Cemetery in Concord Township are overgrown.
One abandoned and formerly overgrown cemetery that has been restored is the Hunter Cemetery, located in Wheatland Township, just seven miles south of Tiskilwa.
In 2000, Jim and Mikki Judge of Iowa discovered the abandoned cemetery, located on the Alan Reed farm. Once engulfed in weeds and trees, broken and displaced headstones, Hunter is now in the process of being restored, thanks to the donations of time and money from many family members and volunteers.
Jean Cavada of Tiskilwa has been involved with the preservation of Hunter Cemetery, which includes the grave sites of some of her ancestors.
“My great-grandparents and three of my great-great-grandparents are buried there,” she said. “This just helped me find my roots here in this area.”
Cavada said the Hunter Cemetery Association has remained active in restoring the cemetery. There are golf tournament fundraisers every even-numbered year, and work weekends every odd-numbered year.
The work weekend held July 1-2, 2011, didn’t turn out quite the way the organizers had planned. Cavada said the planned work had included resetting and restoring more gravestones.
Instead, Mother Nature had resumed her previous attack on the cemetery, and winter winds had damaged the new fence around the cemetery and the brick pillars holding up the arch over the entrance.
Cavada said workers repaired that damage, were able to walk the cemetery and record some of the names on the stones, and to cut down some trees.
“There’s been a lot done, but there is a lot to be completed,” Cavada said.
Cavada encourages anyone who knows they have an abandoned cemetery, or if they find a gravestone, to either contact the IHPA or the local Bureau County Genealogical Society.
“There’s a lot to learn,” she said. “There are certain things they should and shouldn’t do.”
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Want to learn more?
The IHPA’s cemetery webpage at www.illinoishistory.gov/Cemetery is a good place to learn more about cemetery preservation. It includes a free download of the “Illinois Historic Cemetery Preservation Handbook: A Guide to Basic Preservation.” This handbook details the steps involved with researching a cemetery, from locating it on a map or the landscape to identifying different types of markers. It also helps readers develop a preservation plan.