The Herald Bulletin

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Local News

May 31, 2010

Massive undertaking: Indiana’s registry of cemeteries nears 10 years in the making

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — John Walters found his life’s calling in a long-abandoned cemetery, surrounded by fallen tombstones. Hired to mow the grass there, he couldn’t help but notice how badly damaged the markers were once the weeds were cleared away. Among the fallen tombstones was that of a child whose age at death was carved into the headstone: “One hour old.”   

“I thought, if that baby meant enough to somebody who put up that marker, it needed to be stood back up,” Walters said. “Pretty soon I was doing more than just picking up stones.”

Sixteen years later, Walters has become one of Indiana’s most skilled gravestone restorers and a leader in a movement of cemetery advocates who are discovering, documenting, and restoring long-forgotten final resting places.

Over the last decade, those advocates have lobbied for state laws to protect graveyards from neglect and harm. Those laws range from limiting commercial development near historic cemeteries to making it a crime to sell stolen gravemarkers. They include recent efforts to protect modern-day cemetery trusts from being looted for financial gain.

But one of the most significant contributions of what Walters calls an “army of volunteers” may be the work they’ve done toward chronicling the location of thousands of cemeteries in Indiana.

It’s work they’ve been doing since 2001, after Indiana lawmakers passed a law authorizing the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to create a registry of every burial ground in the state.

The task of creating the registry has been enormous, given that lawmakers allocated almost no money to carry out their mandate. Experts estimate there are more than 100,000 cemeteries in Indiana, including burial grounds of Native Americans. Because there were no laws until 1930 requiring accurate record-keeping of cemeteries, many have been lost to time.

By the end of this year, information on almost 20,000 sites will be entered into the Indiana Cemetery and Burial Ground Registry. Other than the federally protected Indian burial grounds, much of it is already available online to the public through the State Historic Architectural and Archeological Research Datebase. (www.in.gov/dnr/historic)

“We couldn’t have done it without volunteers throughout the state who make up a strong grassroots movement of people devoted to preserving and protecting our cemeteries,” said DNR cemetery registry coordinator Jeannie Regan-Dinius.

To help compile the registry, Regan-Dinius has turned to volunteers from local historical societies, genealogy associations, and other interested groups to create lists of cemeteries in each Indiana county. The volunteer researchers with whom she’s worked have used a range of methods to do their research, including scouring old deeds, mortuary records and newspaper articles.

They’ve worked with her to inventory every site, documenting not just the cemetery’s location, but its condition, the number of grave markers in it, and any special features, such as landscaping, ethnic or religious affiliation of the cemetery, or the presence of veterans’ graves.    

The result, said Regan-Dinius, has gone beyond the original intent of the registry. “It creates awareness of the need to protect our cemeteries,” she said. “They’re part of our cultural heritage.”

Maureen Hayden is the CNHI Statehouse reporter. She can be reached at  maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com

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