Saturday, November 15, 2008

Economic meltdown threatens cemeteries

Even before the calamity of Wall Street in late summer and early autumn, the troubled economy affected U.S. cemeteries.
As the price of precious metals rose, so did the rise of thefts of ornamental markers at cemeteries.
"There's definitely an uptick; you might call it a rash," Bob Fells, general counsel for the International Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association, told USA Today in August. "This seems to happen any time the price of metal goes up."
Among the crimes detailed in that USA Today article:
•1,000-pound bronze gates stolen from two mausoleums at a cemetery in Wilmington, Delaware.
•More than 200 brass urns stolen from two cemeteries in Cumberland, Maryland.
•$500,000 worth of brass urns and ornaments stolen from Chicago cemeteries.
The scrap-metal industry has issued guidelines for its members to follow regarding acceptance of suspicious materials, but those guidelines are only as good as the moral compasses that guide scrap-metal dealers.
Meanwhile, looting is only part of the economic trouble facing cemeteries.
Hardly a day passes when there is not some news about cemeteries falling into disrepair and needing financial help to right themselves. Many churches operate on shoestring budgets in the best of times, and when times go bad, they are the first place people turn to for food and comfort. Those church cemeteries often can be left in the lurch. Other, privately run cemeteries run into similar cash-flow problems, particularly in a culture that thinks more about defying age than planning for the afterlife (whatever your religious or non-religious bent).
And then, there are the senseless vandals who have nothing better to do than to deface and destroy? You can bet that cemetery vandalism is low on the list of priorities for ever-squeezed law enforcement.
So, how can we fix this? As we approach the 145th anniversary of the dedication of the national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, it is time for us to rededicate ourselves to treasuring our sacred ground.
Get involved in your local historical and/or genealogical society. Form a task force in your community. Plan nature outings in cemeteries. Include cemeteries in "greenways" projects. At the risk of making a terrible pun: Make cemeteries a vital part of your community's life.
Founding Father Ben Franklin once noted: "Show me your cemeteries, and I will tell you what kind of people you have."

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