Time and the elements take their toll on cemeteries and vandals can destroy and deface monuments meant to stand for the ages.
Cemeteries are meant to be places where the living may reflect on those who have come before and where the departed may repose in quiet dignity.
But that’s not always possible. Time and the elements take their toll on these places of honor and contemplation and vandals can destroy and deface monuments meant to stand for the ages.
Although the largest of the estimated 220 registered cemeteries in Delaware have the financial means to keep them in good repair, many smaller burial grounds do not.
“A lot of smaller cemeteries are basically run by volunteers and about 98 percent of those are owned by churches,” said Mark Christian, chairman of the Delaware Cemetery Board. “It takes quite a bit of time and commitment, and I think they’re all underappreciated, to be honest.”
The board oversees the state’s Distressed Cemetery Fund, which was set up in 2009 to help repair and maintain burial grounds throughout the state. It’s funded by donations and a $2 fee charged each time the state provides a copy of a death certificate.
The board allocates up to $10,000 annually to applicants for repair of long-term problems and maintenance issues at those cemeteries that don’t have adequate funding to fix these problems on their own, Christian said.
Beginning in Fiscal Year 2010, the board has awarded more than $130,000 to 17 cemeteries throughout the state.
In Kent County, owners of the Little Creek Friends Burial Ground east of Dover were granted $10,000 to help replace its crumbling brick wall and make other improvements, including removing at least one large tree inside the wall.
The cemetery documents at least 83 burials, the earliest of which is dated 1731, and includes 21 members of the Cowgill family and 14 members of the Wilson family.
Like many other distressed cemeteries, the Little Creek Friends Burial Ground no longer permits interments; the most recent was that of Daniel Mifflin, who died in 1943.
Another Kent County burial ground, the Hartly United Methodist Church Cemetery, was granted $8,000 by the state, which was matched by the church in cash and volunteer labor.
Although church records were burned – along with the church building itself – during a rash of arsons in 1926, reconstructed records show the cemetery holds about 158 lots, said Howard Clendaniel, who along with wife Nancy helped file the church’s application to the Delaware Cemetery Board.
“It looked pretty bad out there,” Nancy said of the cemetery. “A lot of stones were broken, some were buried in the ground, some were leaning really bad. It was in really sad shape.”
The church has only a small amount of cash allocated for grounds maintenance, which basically is limited to mowing grass and picking up trash, she said. There was nothing available to fix or right shattered and toppled stones.
The church hired the Abba Monument Company and Pauley Memorials, both out of Wilmington and, over a period of several weeks, workers reassembled stones that had been broken years ago and reset others that had sunk into the ground at odd angles or had tumbled over.
Using metal probes, the workers also found and reset three long-buried and long-forgotten stones.
“I didn’t know they were doing that,” Clendaniel said. “They just went ahead and did it.”
Pioneer Materials of Dover also donated about 12 tons of quality topsoil that Clendaniel will use to level out a large section of the cemetery that is bereft of stones. Depressions in the ground show probable sites of burials whose markers disappeared long ago, he said.
All in all, the couple is pleased with the work.
“There are so many cemeteries in Delaware like this one, in need of repair,” Nancy said. “I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do.
“I simply couldn’t picture this place looking like it does now back when we got started.”