The predominant theme that occurred to me while visiting East End and Evergreen Cemeteries was the struggle for preservation of these historic sites in the face of the persistence of nature and intrusive human action. The heavily wooded expanse of the cemeteries at Evergreen and East End creates an almost surreal vision as the graves and markers are interspersed with the natural world that has grown up around them, being swallowed by vines and leaves, headstones turned on their sides from growing roots and the life that has sprung up around the site in its periods of neglect. This factor is compounded by the vandalizing actions undertaken by individuals at this site, where a lack of accessibility or and damage to the site is not only a factor created by nature but by human action which help to further diminish the prominence and general openness of the site to the public.
I found myself questioning the true need for preservation as I was informed of the extensive labor that the volunteers under take at these sites as well as the seemingly futile fight that they are undertaking against fast growing undergrowth and weeds that obscure so much of the cemetery. In many ways the envelopment of this site of death into the natural world seems to me to be the most natural thing possible, when a site has fallen into disuse and the families that have their ancestors buried there have long since stopped coming to mourn. Given premiums of valuable land near the city and the inevitability of natural processes that are at play, one can argue that letting grave sites that have fallen into disuse be reprocessed back into the earth seems like a sensible solution to making efficient use of resources and property. However the this argument for letting the natural order of thing take their course is undercut by the historic significance of some of the graves and the knowledge and insight that can be gained from even the most obscure lives that are interred there.
The small details of each individual headstone gives an insight into not only the individual but the nature of the culture and era which they came from. The grave markers at East End have many interesting features which shine a light on the nature of the world in which these people lived. There are markers indicating employment, religious affiliations, military service, and fraternal and social organizations which defined the lives of the individuals located at East End and Evergreen. These details of association and social structure hold valuable information that can be useful in ancestral research and broader historical research, however I have to wonder if continual preservation of these neglected sites is needed or simply thorough digital and archival documentation that can be more easily utilized for research purposes than a physical site that will have a persistent problem with natural processes and fluctuating public interest and involvement.
The presence of prominent historical figures at the site like Maggie Walker make strong counter arguments for the preservation of these sites and the seemingly neglected and ignored nature of the sites in the pantheon of Richmond Cemeteries. The nature of Maggie Walkers grave site, high upon the precipice of a hill certainly helps to convey her social status and role in the Black Richmond Community during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that is best understood by being present at the site. The Walker Family plot remains one of the most well preserved sites at the cemetery and clearly shows the most continual care and upkeep of any other site in the cemetery.
However perhaps due to the presence of prominent members of the black Richmond community, the site has become a focus for seemingly racist vandalism at the Braxton mausoleum that perhaps would not be so easily done if the efforts to preserve the site did not create the level of accessibility that allows the grave sites to be as easily found or traveled too. This raises issues related to what is the proper role for us to take as the living caretakers of these sites. Do we preserve them for our own interests, drawing in the outside world to these sites, or perhaps let them be secluded resting places for the dead and their families, and let the natural processes of nature occur in way that may obscure but may ultimately be a more respectful approach to not interfering with sites that are not ours in the first place?
The juxtaposition between the acts of preservation and the acts of destruction that have occurred at East End and Evergreen show how cemeteries are treated in our society, where the living take in some ways what may maybe seen as unjust privileges with the dead, that views their remains as some sort of public symbol or asset, utilizing them as a historical resource or a target for expressing long held animosities within our cultures. The mutilation of corpses and desecration of the Braxton mausoleum gave me serious pause to consider if we as living outsiders are entitled to interact with these sites for our own purposes and if even noble endeavors of attempting preservation and historical recognition is in someway an intrusion or an act of trespass upon sacred ground meant for family and loved ones.