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There are many ways to research and learn about our past, but for one historian, studying gravestones and its cemeteries is one of the best ways to find out more about a town’s history.
Dr. Keith Alexander is a professor and historian at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, but his teachings go beyond the classroom. Many of Dr. Alexander’s courses are focused in historic preservation, and part of that curriculum is going out in the field and actually preserving history…starting with a graveyard.
“I think that gravestones are a record and a tangible link to our past that triggers this curiosity among people,” said Alexander.
Dr. Alexander gave a public talk, hosted by the Historic Shepherdstown Commission, about what our gravestones can tell us. He often works with his students preserving three of Shepherdstown’s four main cemeteries. These three cemeteries are the Lutheran Graveyard, the Shepherd Burial Ground, where Thomas Shepherd, the founder of Shepherdstown, is allegedly buried, and Elmwood Cemetery, the largest in the town, which incorporates a Methodist and Presbyterian Cemetery, and a Confederate Soldiers lot.
“We walk by historic buildings all the time, we use them, we inhabit them, we don’t raise that many questions about it,” Alexander noted, “With cemeteries, they’re historical, by definition they’re historical, and they are so tangible, they are these tangible reminders of our own mortality, they are open air museums, they contain incredibly beautiful sculptures, they are parks, nature preserves often times, and they are these accessible, historical repositories.”
Dr. Alexander says as long as you have permission from the owner of the grounds, it’s very easy for anyone in the state to start preserving gravestones and learn more about the history of their area.
“You can start very, very simply, a bucket of water and a sponge or a soft bristled brush, and a notebook,” he explained, “That’s pretty much all you really need to get started. You can do some basic preservation that way, like I said, removing that biological growth, slowing down the process of decay of those stones, and then above all, recording what is there.”
He says the importance of preserving gravestones is to ask more questions.
“Every time I turn to one of these stones…okay I’ve got the data, but I want to know more. Why did people live such short lives? Why was the infant mortality rate so high? Why were there these bumps in mortality in those certain years, 1855 for example? What were the lives of the people like behind the stones? It’s the stories behind the stones, that’s what these stones have to tell us.”
If we don’t work to preserve our past, Dr. Alexander says we’ll lose those resources available to us, and could possibly never find out those answers.