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A Grave Issue

An aerial view of the section of Mountain Home Cemetery being assessed by volunteers. © 2019 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Volunteers working to save headstones in Mountain Home Cemetery

A recently organized effort to clean headstones and obelisks marking the graves of some of Kalamazoo’s most well-known departed residents is helping to save local history. 

Whereas gravesites used to be on church properties or a family’s land, a movement in the 1830s sought to create cemeteries that were more open and park-like, where families of the departed could enjoy an afternoon picnic while remembering their loved ones. 

Such was the case for the historic Mountain Home Cemetery, off West Main Street in Kalamazoo. In the older sections of the graveyard there are tall obelisks and elaborate headstones clutching the hillsides, some containing the surnames of some of the city’s most well-known residents: Ranney, Ransom, Patterson, Upjohn, Gilmore.
But there are also headstones in various states of disrepair. Some are knocked over, others are cracked or crumbling, and still others are worn and weathered, the names and dates eroded over the years by wind and water so that some are barely legible.

It just so happened that earlier this year the Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Commission was looking for an activity that could attract community volunteers for short sessions, with the idea that people could donate a few hours of time while learning about historic preservation. The commission decided to form a volunteer corps called the Grave Issues Squad to help out in local cemeteries.

Starting this past spring, 16 volunteer members of the Grave Issues Squad assessed the condition of each headstone in an older section of Mountain Home Cemetery, detailing its shape and size, its material composition, the number of carved surfaces, and the carving technique used, among several other variables. 

Photos were taken of each headstone that was assessed, and the assessments of the headstones and the work that needed to be done to them were manually recorded on a sheet of paper. Technology staff members at the Kalamazoo Public Library are now working on a smartphone app that will enable volunteers to record the same information on their phones and upload it directly to city staff. The goal is to have an inventory and assessment of each headstone, with one section of the cemetery being completed per year. 

“This is really about getting folks involved in historical preservation in a hands-on way,” says Sharon Ferraro, historic preservation coordinator for the city of Kalamazoo. “It’s a way of literally preserving the past, the memorials to some of Kalamazoo’s best-known and most important names.”

Data collected from these volunteer efforts will be used by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission staff to develop a plan to restore and preserve these literal landmarks of those who first made history in the city. Cleaning efforts are scheduled for sometime this fall, when workers will spray headstones covered in dirt and debris with a special solution that can be rinsed off, avoiding scrubbing if at all possible.

“If you clean too much, you can actually open up the headstone to moss and lichen and hasten its breakdown,” Ferraro says. 

There is also talk of contacting the Plainwell High School powerlifting team to volunteer to heft heavy headstones that have fallen off their foundations.

Headstones that are cracked or otherwise in need of significant repairs will be left alone, as officials decide how to move forward and where funding would come from to do any repair work. Currently, the only costs associated with the program are the cleaning solution and bottled water, Ferraro says, adding that funding for major repairs still needs to be identified. 

Regardless of whatever plan is made for potential repairs, the headstones themselves are the property of the family of the deceased, and contact must be made with any surviving loved ones, since most repairs or changes to a headstone need family permission, Ferraro says. But any active safety hazards can be dealt with without permission, she adds. 

But what if all the members of a family are deceased? Then the city attorney would have to be involved to ensure that moving forward with any work was done in a legal way, Ferraro says.

“We aren’t talking about rehabilitating a historic building here,” she says. “These are sacred sites that deserve our utmost respect.” 

Chris Killian

Chris is an award-winning freelance writer. He a frequent contributor to Encore.

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