Area Cemeteries Are Cultural Resources

By Patricia Longoria, Historic Ithaca Events and Community Engagement Coordinator

In October, when the first frost settles over the hills and the leaves begin their brilliant decline, the calendar naturally turns to a commemoration of death. Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, is by tradition a time to remember the dead. As such, the month provides a fitting opportunity to visit area cemeteries to honor the lives of loved ones lost or to simply appreciate the memorials of those who have lived before us.

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Historic Ithaca is a steward of the Ithaca City Cemetery through its affiliated organization, the Friends of the Ithaca City Cemetery (FICC). To draw attention to the need to preserve the city’s 16-acre municipal cemetery, FICC sponsors guided history tours of the cemetery in October. On a recent tour, participants noticed the finely etched carving on a native bluestone monument more than 200 years old. Several pointed out unusual family names and wondered at the possible genealogical connections. Many were surprised at the stories of the Underground Railroad preserved in stone. Others simply appreciated the beauty of the monuments and symbols carved in stone.

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To bring more community members to enjoy and appreciate this greenspace, the FICC group also organizes the annual Cemetery Sprint. This light-hearted fun run brings costumed participants to traverse the pathways of the cemetery’s hilly terrain. After all, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation recommends, one of the ways to help preserve a historic cemetery is to host visitor-friendly activities that draw attention to ongoing preservation efforts. The cemetery—as walkers, runners, and bird watchers already recognize—is a vibrant space for the living as well as repose for the dead.

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It’s vital—and challenging, given strained budgets and ongoing maintenance costs—to preserve area cemeteries as part of our cultural heritage. The very landscape of the Ithaca City Cemetery itself, for example, preserves a history of national trends in cemetery design from a more informal burial ground to a landscaped “garden of the dead.” Group burial plots, including those of the Sons of Israel, Independent Order of the Odd Fellows, and the Grand Army of the Republic preserve the history of local institutions and connect local history to national trends. Names and birth and death dates on gravestones document genealogical history. They point both to the stories of prominent families and to residents who lived quiet but no less extraordinary lives. Even the changes in gravestone type and design have a story to tell about changes in transportation and views of death.

If you haven’t visited a cemetery lately, take advantage of guided tours offered or simply drop in and wander the pathways of your nearest burial ground. Note the old-fashioned names that are no longer common, the incised and carved symbols that stand for love, mourning, and death. You’ll begin to appreciate the rich history documented in stone that is our heritage to preserve.

For more information about Historic Ithaca’s Ithaca City Cemetery events, visit http://www.historicithaca.org/. The Association for Gravestone Studies (https://www.gravestonestudies.org/) provides helpful information to those interested in learning more about cemetery history.