UPPER ALLEN TWP. - In a way, Paul Kreiner can relate to U.S. Army veterans buried near a grove of trees off West Winding Hill Road in Upper Allen Township.
He too was from a generation of American soldiers who fought, bled and died for a country that failed to appreciate the sacrifice of their service.
“They were being neglected,” Kreiner said of the 12 African-American men interred in the Lincoln Colored Cemetery. “We felt that way when we got home.”
Sixteen years ago this March, members of the Vietnam Veterans of Mechanicsburg went to the Cumberland County Veterans Affairs office in Carlisle where they asked staff members whether there were any cemeteries where they can place flags next to the graves of service members for Memorial Day 1998.
The local veterans were guided to a patch of ground where toppled headstones were hidden by fallen trees and grass over a foot high. Beneath the surface were the remains of a dozen members of the U.S. Colored Troops who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War.
“It had not been taken care of,” Kreiner said of the Lincoln Cemetery. “It was just overgrown. We didn’t know if we were going to run into snakes down there.”
Despite the conditions, the Vietnam veterans felt duty-bound to take on the challenge and clear away enough of the underbrush for a modest ceremony that year.
What started out as a request to salute fellow soldiers has turned into a labor of love for volunteers to not only preserve the cemetery but to restore it as hallowed ground.
“Veterans should be taken care of,” Kreiner said. “It’s an honor to do it. We have come a long way with it, but it took 16 years.”
Today, the Lincoln Colored Cemetery has a flagpole, a memorial stone, a split rail fence, park benches and a storage shed — all made possible through donations from local businesses and residents.
It could have been a different story. All across the country, cemeteries are being lost to fading memories, overgrown landscapes and encroachment by development. Every vanished or hidden headstone is one less clue to those who came before us and the history they helped to make.
But efforts are underway to preserve this hallowed ground and to maintain the past for future generations.
Experts agree the gravest danger to any cemetery is to be disconnected from the past. For years, Steven Burg, professor of history at Shippensburg University, has been active in helping local communities rally support and marshal resources behind the long-term maintenance of burial sites.
All too often, the cemeteries that are struggling are connected to a church or fraternal organization that no longer exists or lacks perpetual care funds due to financial pressures that draw resources away from maintenance, Burg said. He added this is especially true of black cemeteries.
In the late 1800s, Mt. Holly Springs had a thriving African-American community that emigrated from Virginia through the
Cumberland Valley and settled in the mountains near the town, Burg said. There, they built a church and established a cemetery — both of which were gradually abandoned as the minority population dwindled. Burg believes a neighbor may be maintaining the burial ground that sits on private property.
A critical issue for smaller cemeteries is trying to determine who has title to the land, Burg said. While some burial sites are well-marked and clearly defined, others are not, making documentation of the property’s ownership an important first step.
He said thousands of farms across the country have a family plot or small cemetery that can go unnoticed by descendents who have moved away or have lost their connection to the land. Once ownership is established, the next step is to try and build partnerships within the community that can provide for long-term maintenance, Burg said. An important step in any effort at preservation is to first identify the specific tasks involved and then decide who is best suited to do the work.
“If you know what you are doing, sweat equity can go a long way,” Burg said. While volunteers are well capable of mowing grass, helping with upkeep and even repairing smaller headstones, they may have difficulty handling larger monuments that tend to be heavier and of a more complex design.
The Pennsylvania Hallowed Ground Project has been established to help partnerships develop a plan that maximizes the use of volunteers while finding the resources to pay for professional expertise when deemed necessary.
“We give them the tools and the knowledge on how to do it,” said Barbara Barksdale, of Steelton, who is active in the project that targets especially African-American cemeteries where U.S. Colored Troops are buried.
The project is currently helping 22 sites across Pennsylvania including a few in Cumberland and Dauphin counties, Barksdale said. She said hallowed ground across Pennsylvania is being covered up and paved over by those who are either ignorant of its significance or simply don’t care.
As burial sites disappear, so do the names and headstones of those who have made great contributions to their local communities, Barksdale said. “We want to get the word out on how we can help preserve the cemeteries.”
In Shippensburg, several community groups formed a partnership to save the oldest cemetery in town. Called God’s Acre, it is located near the intersection of North Prince and East King streets and is the final resting place for many of its early citizens and veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War.
Because many of the headstones are made of slate, there is widespread deterioration caused by moisture getting into the layers of stone and expanding when the water freezes in the winter. Burg said a large obelisk inside the cemetery is unstable and needs to be reset.
Veterans groups joined forces with other civic organizations and the Shippensburg Historical Society to raise about $15,000 over the past 18 months, Burg said. This money will be used to bring in a professional conservator this summer to dry out the headstones, seal the cracks and stabilize the obelisk.
“You have to really want to do the work,” Paul Kreiner said. “You cannot do it in a couple of months. It takes time.” His advice to those looking to preserve a cemetery is to go out into the community and show people what you are doing and why it is important.