Historic Graveyard Preservation

Posted on June 22nd, 2012 by

Hello, my name is Stephanie Daugherty and I am the summer collections intern at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.  I am currently finishing my Master’s in Museum Professions at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.  In addition to my internship, I am also completing my thesis this summer on historic graveyard preservation, which covers maintaining cemeteries and caring for tombstones in a museum collection.

Raymond Caplan tombstone located in German Hill Road Cemetery.

Although often disregarded as spooky, early American burying grounds are important places of historical information.  Gravestones are notable examples of material culture serving as a physical record of a community’s former inhabitants.  Gravestones can provide insight to the beliefs, customs, and status of the people who erected them. These artifacts look out on us much like they did on the people of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.  From forgotten family burying grounds to systematic memorial parks, cemeteries are exceptional repositories of local history.

This tombstone was discovered in the basement of an East Baltimore rowhome.

I was very excited to learn that the Jewish Museum of Maryland houses numerous photographs of Jewish cemeteries and preserves dislodged tombstones in its collection.  In the nineteenth century, a large influx of Jewish immigrants came to the United States and established cemeteries.  Jewish cemeteries display unique characteristics that set them apart from other American graveyards.  For instance, many Jewish cemeteries have gravestones crowded next to each other so there is hardly room to work around each stone.  Marble and granite are the most common materials and often include symbols of the Star of David, the Lion of Judah, menorahs, etc.  Enameled portraits on the tombstone and inscriptions in Hebrew and Yiddish are other distinct features.

Miniature tombstone illustrating the use of portraits on grave markers.

While cemeteries and tombstones provide a wealth of knowledge, many are in deplorable condition.  Acid rain has eroded many markers to such a degree that their inscription is no longer legible.  Some cemeteries are overgrown and forgotten while others suffer from vandalism.  The goal of my thesis is to explore the value of studying cemeteries and describe how we can preserve them for future generations.  I am excited to include what I have learned from the Jewish Museum of Maryland in my thesis.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland