Cemeteries in the Way of Progress
Jun. 12, 1999
CLARKSVILLE, Ind. (AP) _ She seeks them out in a red Ford Windstar, scouring winding streets and ceaseless subdivisions with a self-trained eye. In the ever-expanding sprawl of the Home Depot epoch, she searches for the history that hides in the folds of today.
Lois Mauk is looking for the dead, the buried. More often than not, she finds them.
She finds them behind long-forgotten fences, under overgrown brush and between houses, their tombstones stacked like rubble. She finds them penned carefully into corners of a military installation. She finds them paved over by asphalt, trapped under shopping centers.
Once there was unrestrained wilderness here, grass and trees to the horizon. That was 1801, when Mauk's ancestor, a Revolutionary War veteran named Bazil Prather, landed with his large family on the Ohio River's north shore to find a new life. Like so many after them, they came to Indiana to build.
And Indiana got built. From the earliest pioneers to the farm-to-market visionaries of the mid-19th century to today's frenetic developers, the state constructed a society to fit the nickname it bestowed upon itself: ``Crossroads of America.''
But now, the builders of the past and the builders of the present are colliding. Indiana is still building, its suburbs and ``exurbs'' pushing out, out, out into the farmland. All over the state, tiny pioneer graveyards sit in the path of the very progress so coveted by the people who rest in them.
The dead, it seems, are suddenly in the way.
And here in the land of the living _ at the build-and-move-on, newness-obsessed end of the 20th century _ stalwarts like Lois Mauk, descendant of one of southern Indiana's first farmer-builders, are their primary line of defense.
A giant of the Earth was he,
To win his fields from stone and tree. ...
It took a giant, nothing less,
To wrest farms from the wilderness.
_from ``Farm Funeral,'' by Indiana poet Tramp Starr, 1941
From the beginning, they wanted to build.
They came from the east and the south, from ``civilization'' as the early 19th century saw it. They bought inexpensive land from the federal government and waded into a wilderness to shape their future.
They tore through forests, felling trees, clearing thickets and displacing Indians to carve farmland. They constructed houses, cobbled together communities, planted seeds agricultural and familial.
Progress was the buzzword, and Indiana's pioneers were the perfect army. When they died, they were buried in quiet corners of their land.
Then the generations kept on building _ beyond anything the pioneers could have imagined. Industry arrived. Houses sprouted. Main Streets became interstates. Farms became suburbs.
On one hand, development was the future's lifeblood, a legacy. But history, especially in a region that so revered its pioneers, was important, too. So a contradiction was born, a tension between past and progress.
Indiana songwriter John Mellencamp saw it; he vowed to ``die in a small town, and that's probably where they'll bury me,'' then lamented the endless ``little pink houses'' and the guy who's ``got an interstate running through his front yard, you know he thinks he's got it so good.''
Today's Indiana still embraces growth. It has 1,138 miles of interstate highway, and more are in the works. America's biggest shopping-mall developer, Simon DeBartolo Group Inc., is based in Indianapolis. The state population grew by nearly 300,000 between 1990 and 1996, 64 percent of it in rural areas.
Those people need places to live, and the countryside beckons. Between 1900 and 1992, Indiana lost 6 million acres of farmland _ 28 percent _ to other uses, including development: The number of permits issued to build new, single-family houses has nearly tripled since 1985.
It can be seen from the interstates at 65 mph: sub-cities rising on city edges; developments named after the things they overrun; signs along highway corridors beckoning homebuyers to visit skeletal neo-neighborhoods plopped down where crops once grew. ``New Homes! A New Life!'' one enthuses.
Such sprawl _ spreading so fast that states from Utah to Pennsylvania are trying to curb it _ is, in this region, an expression of a time-tested philosophy: Building Indiana makes it better.
``They're still taming the wilderness here,'' says Dale Ogden, history curator at the Indiana State Museum. ``Then, you cut down the trees and planted crops. Today, you pave it over and build a mall or a domed stadium.''
In this fast-forward environment, what role is there for the eternal? Just what is meant by a final resting place in a place where nothing _ nothing except death _ is final?
The traffic sweeps along its way
Where once a swampy wood-lot lay...
A car slows, and a voice inside
Says, ``Yeh, I guess some hayseed died.''
To be buried in America today is, many believe, to enter sanctified space. From memorial parks to colonial graveyards, cemeteries are sacred locations in several senses _ religion, family and community identity.
For historians, genealogists and preservationists, old cemeteries are artifacts of architecture, attitude and art. Gravestones decode family relationships; Indiana's public libraries are filled with cemetery data painstakingly recorded by volunteers.
Cemeteries are also bastions of localism, visceral reminders of yesterday's citizens and how survivors remembered the dead. ``Show me your cemeteries,'' goes a saying that graveyard preservationists attribute to Benjamin Franklin, ``and I will tell you what kind of people you have.''
What do early Indiana's cemeteries tell of its people? That a cholera outbreak killed several Dillin family members in the southwestern Indiana hamlet of Ireland, and disease-wary townspeople sealed the graves in concrete. That patriot Nathan Hale's descendants migrated to southeastern Indiana. That many pioneer cemeteries were set on hills so the dead and the living who came to mourn could, on a clear day, see forever.
``These cemeteries are little individual museums,'' muses Delbert Himsel, an Ireland farmer who restores pioneer graveyards, including his ancestors'. ``Everywhere I go around here, there's some of my history.''
Though many today consider cemeteries inviolable, the notion is relatively new. Graves have long yielded to development _ usually public development. Family graveyards in North Kingstown, R.I., for instance, were moved to a public cemetery to make room for a World War II military installation.
Today, America's old graveyards are squeezed by the worlds growing around them.
``What is the suburbs today was the pioneer ground of my ancestors,'' says Jim Wilgus, a 34-year-old American Heart Association executive in Indiana. As a boy, he picked tiger lilies for his mother in an old graveyard that survived the rise of his suburban Indianapolis subdivision.
In Snohomish, Wash., an 1875 graveyard partially paved over by a road has been threatened by the construction of a youth center. In Castaic, Calif., bones from the family of a 19th-century pioneer oilman were unearthed by workers digging a new development. In South Carolina, historians think they've found the remains of a sunken Confederate submarine's crew _ near the end zone of The Citadel's football stadium.
In Indiana, preservationists say 19th-century cemeteries are under siege. They cite example after example: the Rhoads cemetery near the Indianapolis airport, where 35 children and eight adults were exhumed to build a warehouse. Wilhoit in Ireland, where a developer dug up remains and, following state regulations, had them removed to an Indianapolis anthropology lab. Hale-McBride in Clarksville, where bodies were partially paved over by a strip mall years ago.
``Everywhere you live, you're standing on someone else's civilization. I know that. But I don't want these things to be destroyed for no reason at all. And money is not a reason,'' says Dan Johnson, a retiree who, with his wife Betty, spends days restoring old southern Indiana cemeteries.
This swallowing up of resting places, and the injustice that preservationists feel it represents, is where the activism comes from.
It is why Hugh Dillin, a federal judge, demanded to know why his forebears' remains in Wilhoit were dug up. It is why Delbert Himsel has restored cemetery after dilapidated cemetery, mowing grass and reinforcing tombstones with caulk and steel before they topple and slip into the earth.
It is why Ashley Loweth, all of 8 years old and a descendant of Nathan Hale, rode from Clarksville to Indianapolis to tell legislators about her ancestors, the ones blacktopped by the shopping center and the others whose stones sit nearby, penned in by road and parking lot.
And it is why Lois Mauk, paralegal and family historian in the Indiana suburbs of Louisville, Ky., is mobilizing Hoosiers to safeguard old graves and tighten laws. Her Indiana Pioneer Cemeteries Restoration Project has identified more than 160 graveyards whose existences are imperiled, many by development.
``I want someone to be able to say, `This is where my great-grandfather's buried,''' she says.
Last month, Mauk's efforts helped enact a law barring farmers from plowing over old graveyards; future legislation, she hopes, will include developers and make it harder for the state to grant disinterment permits without advance public notice.
``Developers ought to be able to, in every case they possibly can, work around the cemetery,'' says Markt Lytle, a funeral director and state legislator from Madison, Ind., He sponsored the new law and promises more to come.
Lytle realizes the importance of building. ``Sooner or later,'' he says, ``some of these cemeteries in some of this development are going to have to be moved. But when they are, we want to make sure they're removed and replaced properly.''
No finer tribute can be paid
To any dead than this; he made
A barren field to bloom, his hand
Brought fruitfulness unto the land.
The red Windstar pulls into the shopping-center parking lot and Lois Mauk pops out. She is not pleased.
In front of her: Hale-McBride cemetery, or what's left of it _ a smattering of old stones on a bleak patch abutting Blackiston Mill Road. Telephone booths sit at its edge; a rusty shopping cart floats in a rivulet nearby.
``It makes me sick,'' Mauk spits.
There is, she acknowledges, a conflict of values here: How do you remember the past when the present is important _ and so immediate? Edge-city land is more economically valuable as developed property than as ancient boneyard. But what spiritual value does a cemetery hold? What does our treatment of it tell us about our place in the world?
``It is part and parcel of being a civilized society to show respect for these postage-stamp pieces of property in developments that are often so huge,'' insists John Herbst, president of Conner Prairie, a ``living history museum'' that depicts the Indiana pioneer era, circa 1836.
``Nobody's saying you shouldn't go ahead and do new suburbs if there's a need,'' Herbst says. ``But if you've got a 500-acre tract and less than an eighth of an acre of pioneer cemetery, you can incorporate it.''
That is happening as the preservation and family-history movements gain strength and as the so-called ``smart growth'' approach _ developers consulting with communities rather than simply building _ becomes more common.
``Good developers, the ones who are thoughtful, have already figured this out: Give the people a voice,'' says Michael Pawlukiewicz, director of environmental land use policy at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit organization.
In Union, Ohio, northwest of Dayton, a developer who built a neighborhood around the Sweet Potato Ridge Road Cemetery in 1997 promised to preserve it. At the Avondale Mall in Decatur, Ga., a small stone building surrounds the graves of Crowley Cemetery; visitors can view the parking-lot burial ground by asking mall security for a key. And in Jim Wilgus' old subdivision near Indianapolis, the little family cemetery is still protected by residents.
Indiana developers like Greg Furnish, encountering more graves than ever as they build outward, are working with municipal governments and preservationists to find middle ground. Furnish's firm is developing 164 houses on an old family farm outside Clarksville, and plans to build around three old graves.
Three old graves of pioneers who were builders of Indiana, and thus, have something in common with him.
``It's such a small piece of the pie to keep everybody happy,'' Furnish says. ``That cemetery was there way before we got there.''
For Mauk, ``the stones on these graves are the only evidence these people existed. If we can't respect the dead, how can we respect the living?''
She plans to be out there on the city edges for years to come, hacking through the brush to reach long-neglected graves. She'll write down names, maybe speak them aloud. She'll rally troops to preserve the bones of community and memory.
Because this is the earth where she wants to be buried. She wants to return to the ground that swallowed her ancestors, that contains her mother and pioneers like Bazil Prather _ the ancestor who fought to build a home on land that, true to Indiana heritage, now sprouts houses as fast as it once sprouted corn.
She wants descendants to visit, to look upon her gravestone, maybe to think of her from time to time. She wants, eventually, to rest in peace.
And when that happens, Lois Mauk would prefer not to be moved.