While people looked to the living for comfort during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigel Rudolph turned to stories of the dead as a way to ride out the worst of spring 2020.
During quarantine, Rudolph, his wife and daughter spent almost every day in a cemetery.
“There’s something really beautiful and special about being in cemeteries,” said Rudolph, the central region public coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network. “I think you will learn to appreciate that once you visit them.”
The people buried in these cemeteries built the world we live in, he said. He and his wife thought the lockdown was the perfect time to give their daughter a chance to grow up around history.
“It’s really important to understand where we come from in order to know where we’re going,” he said.
Most people find it weird he encourages his family to spend time in cemeteries, he said. But he and other archaeologists argue that burial grounds serve the living more so than the dead, justifying the need for their discovery and preservation.
Lawmakers are recognizing this need in the 2023 legislative session, as they review the Abandoned and Historic Cemeteries bill and its companion bill in the Senate. The House bill has its first hearing on Thursday. The legislation seeks to establish a program responsible for uncovering and preserving historic cemeteries within the Division of Historical Resources, a branch of the Department of State.
If passed, the law would accompany a variety of state laws and regulations already in place protecting thousands of resting places in Florida. Established statutes make it illegal to disturb, buy or sell human remains. Other regulations spell out how county and city governments can intervene to maintain cemeteries.
This year’s bill follows another that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in 2021; it created a task force to specifically find abandoned and neglected Black cemeteries. Over the last five years, a string of discoveries uncovered multiple Black cemeteries buried underneath developed land in Tampa, sparking statewide action.
Cemeteries in danger of becoming lost history like those in Tampa make it important to find, restore and preserve burial grounds, said William Lees, the executive director of the state archaeology network. Protecting these cemeteries from development is essential to our heritage landscape, Lees said.
“This [bill] is a way to look at it proactively and try to get a handle on this situation, bring awareness to it and get these cemeteries their respect back,” Lees said.
The network’s goal, he said, is to get as many cemeteries as possible registered on the Florida Master Site File, the state’s official inventory of historical and cultural resources.
When someone is requesting a permit to build something, the state checks the file to see what is in the area, and landmarks will only be protected if noted on the file, said Barbara Clark, Northwest and Central region director of the network.
Currently, there are 1,905 cemeteries recorded statewide, with 27 in Marion County and 82 in Alachua County, according to the file. While this is a start, thousands are yet to be uncovered, Clark said.
A lot of states are starting to take big steps toward preserving historic cemeteries, but Florida seems to be taking a more formal, legal route to protect cemeteries, said Melissa Timo, the historic cemetery specialist for the North Carolina office of state archaeology.
In North Carolina, as communities cry out for help, change is coming from a more internal shift within the state department itself, Timo said. There are no laws requiring North Carolina landowners to actually do anything with cemeteries, she said, which is what would set Florida apart if this bill is signed into law.
Florida’s proposed legislation has a section devoted to funding for maintenance of cemeteries, and Timo said she thinks this is one of the more important aspects of the law. In North Carolina, grants for maintenance are “few and far between” because research and restoration are prioritized, she added.
Even with Florida’s growing emphasis on government action, a lot of current restoration, discovery and maintenance efforts are reliant on local communities.
“We probably get more calls about historic cemeteries than anything else,” Lees said. “People care immensely about cemeteries.”
Finding the remaining unknown cemeteries is almost impossible without the help from local residents, Clark said. Her network focuses on public outreach to inform the public about ways they can help. She said the organization is working on giving people tools to help the organization protect cemeteries.
The most helpful thing the public can do is fill out the historic cemetery inventory form online, she said. A lot of times even well-known cemeteries that are frequently visited are not recorded on the Florida Master Site File, she added.
Most people think the burial grounds have to be super significant, nationally relevant or home to someone famous to be considered historic, she said. But the criteria is simple — it just has to be 50 years old or older.
There are not many individuals in the Gainesville community who are actively a part of the greater mission to find and protect cemeteries, but their work is effective, Rudolph said.
What is important is that these people recognize these headstones and burial plots are the last remnants showing the deceased ever existed, Rudolph said.
Groups like the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery Restoration Organization are working hard to put cemeteries in Alachua County on the map, especially Black cemeteries. Their mission: to protect and preserve.
Their mission had a fulfilling moment on Feb. 4 as history was recognized at the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery. The group and community members gathered to unveil the cemetery’s official state historical marker.
The organization has been very active in researching and restoring this cemetery, said Alachua County Historic Commission Chair Karen Kirkman. When discovered, the cemetery was overgrown and abandoned. Now, it is beautifully manicured and sharing its history with the community, she said.
“I’m so emotional today,” Roberta Lopez, president of the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery Restoration Organization, said at the unveiling ceremony.
Many buried in the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery were enslaved, freed slaves and World War I and II veterans, Lopez said.
Lopez emphasized how marking this restored burial ground is essential to American history because of its Black roots, making it an important piece in her history.
“Our ancestors are just as important to us as anyone else,” Alachua County Commissioner Charles Chestnut said.
Chestnut said he believes it is important to carry on their legacy, and the restoration of the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Cemetery is a milestone to be celebrated. It is just the beginning of marking burial plots if this bill is passed.
Many people may think cemeteries are just resting places for the deceased, but we look at them as outdoor museums, Rudolph said.
“Go to your local cemetery,” he said. “This is history.”