Hundreds of young trees dominated the underlying graves of East End Cemetery. East End was not manicured nor was clear where the cemetery began and where it ended. However, despite the overgrowth and disorder of the headstones, there was an unmistakable beauty in the midst of it all. One could see life progressing, whilst the dead were returned to Earth. Others would disagree and see nature’s second burial as a disservice to the dead. However, I found the budding plants to be a more fitting tribute, than the orderly stones and flat lawns associated with graveyards. This image led me to reexamine a question the class was asked on our first meeting. Should society actively preserve cemeteries, or is the dilapidation of graveyards apart of the natural order of a cemetery’s life?
At East End Cemetery volunteers spent countless hours unearthing headstones. Through which the group managed to create a decent resting place for the dead. I in no way wanted to discredit them or imply that their efforts were pointless. As a history major it was a struggle to determine whether or not graveyards needed to be preserved. One part of me desired to emphatically state: the safeguarding all history was important, we should maintain what was left to us in the present, we have much to learn from the tangible reminders of the past, etc. Yet another side of me wrestled with what that entailed. With over 7 billion people alive today, there would be over 7 billion deaths in years to come. The dead should be treated with respect, but humanity should not overrun the natural landscape to do so . After I came to this conclusion, something still felt inherently wrong about the condition of East End Cemetery. Then I realized the issue with the state of this cemetery was not the overgrowth of the area, but a disheartening commonality found between East End and others gravesites like it. It echoed the faded signs and sparse signage the class witnessed at the African Burial Ground. The graveyards predominantly composed of minority groups we visited were not being maintained with the same deference as their counterparts.
Many of the historical cemeteries in Richmond, were not open to African Americans. Segregation was still practiced throughout the South up until the 60’s. Even in death the races were divided. East End enabled the African Community that lived in Richmond to be buried with dignity. Various individuals purchased plots at the gravesite. According to our guide, the Cemetery was created with the attention of rivaling the landscape of Hollywood Cemetery. Since the city was not willing to provide African American’s with a decent burial place, the African American Community built its own cemetery. Unfortunately the preservation of the graveyard proved to be rather difficult, since it was private property. Moreover those buried at East End did not have the option of purchasing continuous maintenance for grounds. As families moved away, or passed away, the gravesites at East End fell into disrepair. At one time the surrounding forest absorbed approximately 16 acres of graves. Nonetheless, years of effort from sympathetic volunteers resulted in a peaceful resting place, clear of much of the derby and unruly vegetation.
For hundreds of years African Americans were denied the basic rights of human being. When African Americans were buried, they were given unwanted landscapes. Such areas were naked to the dangers of robbery and the natural elements. East End was an opportunity to put an end to this humiliation. Regrettably the Cemetery was still overgrown on our visit and in some areas littered with trash. The city stated that it could do nothing about the area because it was private property. This argument was understandable, but I failed to see why the African Burial Ground and similar sites also received such minimalist approach. I was not bothered by the forest reclaiming the land, but by the deliberate display of inequality. As a prominent historical city, Richmond should take an interest in the silenced communities that helped to create it.