May CCF Website Blog
By Candace Wheeler, Executive Director-Board Member
Comstock Cemetery Foundation
A modern burial is one of the challenging activities to manage in the historic Silver Terrace cemetery. As an old cemetery we don’t have much space and the CCF is not in the burial business. However the local government wanted to offer modern burials whenever possible – ah well, we all know that historic preservation is often an exercise of compromise. There are rigid requirements concerning who and how people can be buried in what is really choice real estate. Our job is to facilitate those burials in a way that is not harmful to the historic status of the cemetery and in compliance with the various organizations that maintain sections in the cemetery. We ask for burial donations which are applied to restoration projects. Other activities such as monitoring and excavating work are assigned to approved suppliers for which the family pays separately.
Whether required or not by grant givers, it is the policy of the CCF to adhere to the National Park Service’s guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes. We are in a National Landmark, and as such it is our responsibility to comply with accepted preservation principals. In many cases we could lose valuable funding should we not adhere to those principals. One of the most difficult issues we must address is the suitability of a modern grave marker; what is “right” and what is “not acceptable.” Remember the NPS’s treatment plan represent guidelines, not rules. At the CCF we have had to take those guidelines and use them to develop rules in order to literally protect our funding and the integrity of the landscape.
The following is a summary of some of the information we used to develop our rules and make decisions on “non-standard” requests for grave markers. There may have been mistakes made in the mid 1900s, but our job is not to continuing making those mistakes.
This is a general guideline taken from the NPS’s treatment plan for rehabilitation in cultural landscapes. The installation of a grave marker is a modern “addition” or a form of rehabilitation:
When alterations to a cultural landscape are needed to assure its continued use, it is most important that such alterations do not radically change, obscure, or destroy character-defining spatial organization and land patterns or features and materials.
The installation of additions to a cultural landscape may seem to be essential for the new use, but it is emphasized in the Rehabilitation guidelines that such new additions should be avoided, if possible, and considered only after it is determined that those needs cannot be met by altering secondary, i.e., non character-defining, spatial organization and land patterns or features. If, after a thorough evaluation of alternative solutions, a new addition is still judged to be the only viable alternative, it should be planned, designed, and installed to be clearly differentiated from the character-defining features, so that these features are not radically changed, obscured, damaged, or destroyed.
From this, we have determined that any grave marker should not be “aged” or made to look historic - it would be as if we were trying to fool the public. We want the public to know it is a modern installation. (In some cases when we have replaced stolen markers we have engraved “Replaced by the CCF 2006” so there would be no misunderstanding.)
Another guiding principal that we used to craft our rules for modern grave markers is that the marker be, “a new design that is compatible with the remaining character-defining features of the historic landscape. The new design should always take into account the spatial organization and land patterns, features, and materials of the cultural landscape itself and, most importantly, should be clearly differentiated so that a false historical appearance is not created.”
The grave marker is part of the material culture of the landscape. We have evaluated the grave markers in our historic cemetery for materials used, designed shape, and graphic engraving.
Materials Used for Historic Grave markers
Quarried stones-limestone, sandstone, granite, and marble. The quarried stone used was typically lighter in color, white-gray tones, and came from other areas in the country. Local unrefined “rock” and cement was not used. Bronze, White Bronze was used, but generally not iron materials. There were two historic blacksmith created grave markers, but these were exceptions and not prevalent at the time. Wood was used, but as one might expect, it has deteriorated and is no longer abundant in the cemeteries.
How these observations translate into a modern policy is pretty simple. The modern grave marker must be made of: marble, granite, limestone or sandstone (the last two are not widely used today due to stability). White Bronze is no longer produced and no “home made” iron work for markers is appropriate. Wood, while in keeping with the character, is a modern maintenance concern and therefore it is not permitted. Local rock for markers is not allowed.
Shapes of Grave Markers
The shapes of the historic marker were fairly standard; door-shaped, rectangle, obelisk, and symbolic carved statuary such as a cross. Marble was typically used when a statuary element was desired.
For our application, this means that those same shapes are acceptable today: door-shaped, rectangle, and obelisk. For the most part, crude unfinished shapes, stars, and circular designs would not be acceptable. We prefer flat mounted markers from a maintenance standpoint. Flat mounted markers also tend to be less distracting in a historic cemetery, however upright veteran markers are acceptable. Wood is not allowed due to maintenance issues.
The historic epitaph typically contained name, birth and death dates, family relationship, and a brief saying or poem. The graphic elements were always symbolic in nature; the wreath, the Forget-me-not, cross, Star of David, and other Victorian symbolism meaningful in the deathways of the time. There were no cartoon shapes.
The overall impression of the historic cemetery is monochromatic in nature both then and now. There were neither bright colors used nor decorative “glued” add-on elements such as beads or buttons. On rare occasions (due to expense) there may have been a porcelain transfer photograph adhered to a pre-carved stone. But even that add-on was black and white. There was no metal used or reflective material of any kind.
We evaluate the modern engraving in relation to the historic nature of the grave markers. Again, in crafting our grave marker rules, we take our cue from the historic material culture; no bright colors, no cartoon shapes, no inappropriate images and/or writing, and no reflective materials. This includes solar lighting and battery operated lights. We do allow professionally transferred photographs on appropriate stone, both flat mount and upright.
It has been a long journey for the cemetery and for us. We have followed these rules for nearly 20 years in order to protect the historic material culture of the landscape. The majority of families that are allowed to bury in this historic landscape consider it a privilege and are more than happy to help us retain both the integrity and our funding.
The Amazing Grace of the 601 Vigilante Committee
Saturday, November 7th
The Comstock Cemetery Foundation (CCF) has much to be grateful for; the 601 Vigilante Committee is supporting our efforts to preserve and protect the historic cemeteries of the Comstock and honor the memories of those that have gone before. The CCF volunteers have often felt we don’t get much formal support as it is more attractive for donors to drop it in the pot for old schools and buildings. But this group gets it-gets its history-gets the importance of honoring our past, not the buildings but the people that built the buildings, the people that lived in them, the people that fought for our rights. The 601 began our relationship by listening; listening to our history, listening to our struggles and frustrations. Then in February last year they held an event that resulted in a $4,000 donation to support the installation of electricity and security at the visitor center.
These fine gentlemen (and their ladies) didn’t just raise a glass-they raised the bar. The group taught us that there are people that understand and honor real history-the true stories of our past. Recently the 601 staged an event at Silver Terrace cemeteries-and I mean they staged it; advertised, decorated, purchased equipment, invited stake holders from upper management to local scout troupes. They gave us a plaque to acknowledge our efforts of 21 years. Efforts that feel largely overlooked by the community, and to some degree even by us-it never seems as if we make a dent. But they did more…
About 130 years ago the flag poles in the Mason and Oddfellows’ cemeteries crumpled to the ground. Today the pole fragments still lay abandoned like rusty snakes in the cemetery soil. On Saturday, November 11, they were resurrected by the 601 group, complete with flags and lights for night illumination. Amazing Grace floated on the air played by Scottish pipers, flags of our veterans flew from the fence poles, and most attendees were clad in historic dress. Following some thoughtful, and historically correct speeches, the scout troupe helped raise the flags once again-many had tears in their eyes as they sensed the collective importance of the honor, felt surrounded by history. I was not the only one with blurry eyes. The demonstration of and reverence for the honors of the past turned the clock forward. It transformed the shared mood of a group of acquaintances on a windy hill in an old cemetery.
It was two days following our national election. An adversarial event that we hope our country never sees again. Accusations of massive voter fraud, a tear in our democracy, which began to make it sound more like an election in Syria. Is that us? Does that mean fraud had occurred for hundreds of years? Was there fraud in 2016? Or it just happened now? We woke up in 2020 to discover rampant fraud, that puts to the rack our democracy. Emotions were high-didn’t matter which “side” anyone was one but hushed sippets of conversation could be heard on and off during the preliminary setup.
“Could I be standing beside a person that voted for Biden?” “Was there a Trump voter in front of me?” We sensed people wondering. Wow. Did everyone buried in the cemetery vote for Trump, or Biden when we weren’t paying attention?
The bagpipes started, taps played, and before the speeches began, the entire group said the pledge of alliance; those in uniform saluting, those not stood with hand over heart, hat removed.
I pledge alliance to the flag-not to a person, not to a dictator, not to a socialist, of the United States of America-United States, United. Can we embrace that again? And to the republic for which it stands, one Nation-One nation-under God-representing the values that befit our democracy which was now being questioned-with liberty and justice for all-not just a few, not just us, but all of us. We the People.
And in the act of remembering the past a group of largely strangers, stood, in the present united by the recognition that these veterans had given their lives to protect our liberty, our right to vote, our right to be heard, and to be free. From that moment on, no more hushed conversations, people embraced the voter of Biden and Trump alike. Because we are the United States of America and those veterans fought to ensure those rights. The red, white and blue broke though the grey cloud that was our 2020 election. And that is the Amazing Grace that the 601 Committee gifted us that day.
Photograph by Tynan Wheeler November 2020