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COLUMN

IPFW class builds awareness by cleaning forgotten cemeteries

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Follow project's progress

A website will soon be created to inform the public about cemeteries that have been improved, future projects, the need for donations and other information. Check back later at http://new.ipfw.edu/csr/cemetery

Students working to honor the dead – for the sake of the living

Thursday, April 25, 2013 - 9:34 am

It's not even visible from Aboite Road, which may be one reason why the tiny Kelsey Cemetery in Lafayette Township, with its weather-beaten, broken headstones and overgrown foliage, epitomizes the many nearly forgotten cemeteries scattered throughout the area.

But an IPFW professor and her students are working to breathe new life into that and other forgotten graveyards – for the sake of the living, if not the dead.

“This is a passion of mine. My family has a cemetery in Ohio and we maintain it. I want to feel it's a good place. It's important as a society,” said Donna Holland of IPFW's sociology department, who with students in her “family” class is trying to foster similar awareness in Allen County, where many of the more than 150 cemeteries and burial sites have succumbed to age, vandals or oblivion.

And so, earlier this week, Holland and some of her students were doing what they could to spruce up a cemetery that could be close to two centuries old but is today slowly being surrounded by the sort of homes and other development that surely would have amazed the people buried there.

It's a process that will be repeated at other cemeteries and, if Holland and her students have anything to say about it, will continue with the community's help long after the class is over.

“There's just been so much vandalism. It's sad,” said student Bekah Collins.

“To see the headstones, it's heartbreaking,” agreed Ivy Teders.”

Restoration of those tipped, weathered or broken markers isn't part of the student's mission. That would take require special expertise and money and could be subject to state legal guidelines. So Holland and her helpers are concentrating on the low-hanging fruit, such as the removal of debris, pruning of overgrown trees and brush and general groundskeeping. They're hoping the public and businesses will want to help, and have already received support from a few firms, including Fort Wayne Caterpillar and Summit City Landscaping.

As an educational exercise, the project represents the best of two worlds, providing both a real-world benefit and academic awareness. People who want to understand families could do much worse than to explore a cemetery.

As a matter of law, however, maintenance of abandoned cemeteries falls to the township trustees. But because their usually meager budgets are seldom equal to the challenge, a certain degree of benign neglect has too often become the rule, not the exception.

But the students' task would be even more difficult had others not provide inspiration and guidance. Back in 2006, for example, the Allen County Commissioners spent $20,000 to install a culvert over a drainage ditch so volunteers could restore Brown family cemetery south of Monroeville. The Allen County Public Library's vaunted genealogy department has provided valuable insight on cemeteries developed by families, long-folded church congregations and other organizations. And in 2008 the Mary Penrose Wayne Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution began the ambitious project of documenting the county's cemeteries and the more than 165,000 headstones. They expect to complete the work this year.

We properly show more concern for the living than the dead, who are blissfully immune to the problems that afflict the rest of us. But as student Sarah Pinkston properly noted, the cemetery project is intended precisely for those who are able to appreciate it: descendents, people interested in community or family history and even the merely curious.

I understood that sentiment better after walking down the long, muddy lane leading from Aboite Road into Kelsey Cemetery. There, stuck into the soggy, squishy ground around a tombstone rendered nearly unreadable by 150 years of rain and wind, were several small American flags.

At least a few people, it seems, still remember Allen County's forgotten cemeteries and the people resting in them. The remaining epidemic of amnesia, however, should provide Holland's students a fertile learning opportunity.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.