I’m fascinated and moved by historic cemeteries because they’re such concise, visual records of so many human stories. Especially in pioneer cemeteries, you see unique headstones telling stories of lives far too short or so long and full of heartache it’s hard for me to comprehend.
The plot of the Baker family in the Mendon, Utah cemetery is a good example. The parents’ gravestone carries the inscriptions “Pioneer 1847” and “Pioneer 1851.” Next to this large stone are a series of smaller ones marking the short lives of some of their children with poems or quotes that are still moving today, though now all the family members rest together, we can hope in the next world as well as in this one.
Many pioneer cemeteries in Utah have been updated for modern maintenance techniques, which means they consist mostly of lawn-mower friendly grass and trees. Historically, cemeteries and grave yards were not irrigated and manicured. Many would have looked more like the cemetery at Grafton ghost town in southern Utah.
Tall, old evergreens are appropriate, symbolic sentinels, but I always hope to find other historical plants in cemeteries, particularly roses. Lawn and trees are cheaper to maintain, though the sprinkler systems used for the grass can be hard on old grave markers. Still, the lilacs at the historic Mendon cemetery serve as an example of the pros and cons of keeping some of the older styles of graveyard decoration.
The lilacs bloom here in Utah in time for Memorial Day, and they make Mendon’s pioneer cemetery a beautiful and fragrant contrast to other cemeteries in the area. The plants are very old, though not as old as some of the headstones. Most of them are huge and well -maintained, but the one in the Baker plot has overgrown its bounds and damaged some of the children’s grave markers.
The old irises planted next to a nearby WWI veteran’s headstone are also beautiful, and less likely to do any damage.
I think lilacs and other historic plants should be allowed to remain in pioneer cemeteries, and I give Mendon kudos for the balance they have achieved, but in any historic cemetery, descendants or other volunteers need to keep a close eye on damage that could be caused by old plants, as well as by modern maintenance practices such as sprinklers and lawn mowers.
If you are interested in learning about historic cemetery preservation, there are a lot of great state and federal guides available, such as these from the National Park Service and the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. As in all areas of historic preservation, the struggle is to strike a balance between disturbing as little as possible while ensuring that the historic item will endure for future generations to learn from and enjoy. If in doubt, document an historic artifact with pictures and leave it alone, and of course always get permission from the land owner before doing anything.
If you are a land owner with a pioneer cemetery or other artifact on your property and you want advice, contact an expert like a historical landscape architect or a preservation specialist with the state or federal government. In Utah, you can also check out Snow College’s Traditional Building Skills Institute, which is dedicated to passing on the knowledge and skills necessary for historic preservation. Remember, except in a few rare cases, having a historic building or artifact on your property does NOT take away any of your property rights and might give you tax benefits!