PUNTA GORDA — Between climate change, rising sea levels and natural disasters, Florida’s historic cemeteries are at risk of being lost to time.
To help protect those cemeteries, the Florida Public Archaeology Network hosts workshops called the Cemetery Resource Protection Training Conference, otherwise known as CRPTC (pronounced cryptic).
FPAN representatives teach how to preserve and maintain historic cemeteries, including how they use technology to map and locate unmarked graves.
On Friday, FPAN representatives and workshop-goers split off into groups to search the Charlotte Harbor Cemetery, the oldest “marked” cemetery in Charlotte County.
The results of that search are still being processed.
Locating unmarked graves
“Historic cemeteries are museums to our local communities, but through neglect and vandalism they can easily disappear over time,” said Rebecca O’Sullivan, FPAN public archaeology coordinator for the group’s west central region.
“Once a headstone is gone, it is hard to remember where a grave is located,” O’Sullivan said.
One solution to this problem is what FPAN Director Sarah Miller calls a “really cool toy” — a ground-penetrating radar.
They use the GPR to see below the surface. It works similarly to radar used by airports to track planes in the sky, according to an Aug. 3, 2018 post on FPAN’s website.
The GPR unit consists of an antenna and a receiver. The antenna sends radio wave pulses into the ground. The receiver detects and measures the delay of signals from reflected subsurface features. This technology helps archaeologists locate buried walls, pits, shell middens, wells and graves.
“Using methods (like this), gradiometer surveying and digital mapping, we can begin to piece together a true picture of these historic places, put once-unmarked graves back on the map and create a lasting record,” O’Sullivan said.
FPAN also demonstrated the use of photogrammetry — making measurements from photographs — and terrestrial laser scanning, often used for terrain and landscape mapping.
Cemeteries are more than just a place to bury the dead, they serve as historical resources but they need to be protected by conserving headstones and markers, managing cemetery landscapes and cleaning the headstones.
“Anytime that we do a CRPT training or a conference we find out who owns and manages the cemetery and make sure that we have permission,” said Rachel Kangas, FPANs southwest public archaeology coordinator, based in Fort Myers.
“Normally we do headstone cleaning with a D-2 biological solution which is a stone cleaner so we do touch the headstones with permission of course,” Kangas said. “We make sure that we talk to the people that own and manage it so that they know that we are going to be there and that they are okay with us coming in and working.”
Heritage at risk
People often call FPAN when an abandoned cemetery is found or if maintenance is needed at a historical grave site.
“There are sites endangered by global warming, climate change, sea level rise,” Miller said. “This is the state’s heritage at risk. If we don’t work to maintain them, cemeteries will disappear and they will disappear so fast ... within a generation.”
Before they started CRYPTC, the amount of work needed to preserve these historic sites was getting too much to maintain, according to Miller.
“Before we started this, the sites were just getting bigger and the problem was getting greater (for us to be able to maintain). We were having to move more and more people. We asked ourselves what can be done so we don’t have to do this anymore? In so many instances, grave sites didn’t have any above-ground headstone. They had been completely forgotten to time and it can happen within a generation. It’s not fair.”
FPAN has been putting on the conferences up and down the state for years to promote “best practices” in cemetery upkeep — first in Gainesville (2014), then Deland (2015), then St. Augustine (2017) and now Punta Gorda.
“What I had noticed is that there were a lot of best practices that were there but there was nothing very fortified,” Miller said. “We have unique issues in our state. People in Florida really needed this training and needed it broadly and cheaply.”
Miller said FPAN has operated in 30 counties across Florida and 52 cities. They’ve worked on 82 cemeteries and have graduated 1,408 people with their workshops.
Connie Moss attended the Punta Gorda conference with two others of a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
When asked why they were there, Moss said, “We are going to be handling some of the maintenance at the Lt. Carl Bailey Cemetery (formerly the Cleveland Cemetery) in Punta Gorda and we want to know what we are doing.”
Cemeteries are ‘live places’
City Council Member Jaha Cummings is a fifth-generation Punta Gorda resident and visits the Lt. Carl Bailey Cemetery monthly where his great grandparents are buried.
“Most of the research (I’ve done) on my family we got through this (going to historic cemeteries) and then going to courthouses and researching public records,” Cummings said. “The way I view cemeteries is like a starting point to actually looking at the history of the people who are in it as opposed to simply saying these people died and they are in a cemetery. I see at as more or less like they are reference points,” Cummings said.
Preservation of historic cemeteries is paramount, according to Cummings, because it is the only way to really understand “who we are, from whom we came” and the historical context of those who lived in the past.
“A lot of public perception is that cemeteries are for dead places as opposed to live places, but I see them as live places,” Cummings said. “You can see so much (at the cemetery) … especially when you (find the stories) of the different people and you can really just put context to how a person got there.”