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Graveyard Detectives

When developers stumble onto unmarked cemeteries, historians help put a host of questions to rest.

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The team's job is to find, document and research graves, and then make the information they find available to the public in print form.

"I've been traipsing around in cemeteries since I was a teenager," says Lipowicz, making her way through the overgrowth of a wooded parcel of land in the Bexley subdivision, where a graveyard was discovered years ago.

With houses in plain sight of the small grouping of head- and footstones, Lipowicz points out a clue, a path worn through the ground cover of periwinkle.

"We look for old trees — especially cedar trees — and we look for periwinkle," she says, snapping a few pictures with her digital camera for her scrapbook of grave markers. "People planted periwinkle because it flourishes in places that are dark like this."

Lipowicz weaves in and out of the various grave-markers, taking note of their features. "This is an interesting stone," she says of one that's knee-high. "Here it has a broken rosebud showing that life has ended early."

When a small group of graves is found in a family graveyard, often other unmarked graves are close by.

Lipowicz illustrates this by pointing out a few grave-size indentions in the earth roughly 15 feet away from the core group of markers in the subdivision.

"Sometimes if they have nothing," she says, "it's indicative that it's a slave cemetery behind the family one."

Pattie Grady, a volunteer and a charter member of the Chesterfield Historical Society's cemetery committee, goes to the Library of Virginia weekly to research the unmarked graves that homeowners and developers find.

It can be a frustrating process. Older cemeteries are often found only on the original deed for the land. The historical society's researchers use everything from maps and deeds to obituaries and census records to find out who might be buried in a newly discovered grave.

They must also deal with incomplete or missing records. "The state — for some reason — did not require deaths to be listed between 1896 and 1912 — or births," Grady says. "My father was born in 1909, and he had no birth certificate."

With the increase in Chesterfield's development, the historical society finds its workload increasing. "We probably average a new graveyard at least once a week," Grady says.

In the event that a grave marker is still around, Lipowicz says, the markers can often be unreadable because of weathering.

"Some of them are really hard to read, so we put flour in them so we can read them," she says. "Of course, if you've got a good sunny day, you take a mirror and reflect light on the stone."

Lipowicz prefers the latter method of reading a stone because it leaves no sign that it has been tampered with.

But some graves are tampered with before Lipowicz or Grady ever gets to them. "We had one within the past five years where some young people dug up some of the bones and ground them and smoked them in a pipe," Grady says. (They were eventually arrested and prosecuted.)

Once the historical society determines whose grave has been found, it tries to locate family members. If it cannot find anyone, a newspaper ad is placed in an attempt to notify any remaining family members that the grave has been found. If no one comes forward — and the deceased person was not particularly famous — then an archaeologist is called. The archaeologist will then work with a funeral director to move the remains to another cemetery.

Lyle Browning, owner of Browning & Associates Ltd., is an archaeologist who deals with the excavation side of newly discovered graves.

"There are two things guaranteed to get people up in arms," he says. "No. 1, disturbing a burial ground, and No. 2, Civil War sites."

Browning encourages developers to check out a site ahead of time before they get ready to break ground and suddenly discover a graveyard exists. "The wise developer finds out during due diligence what the potential lethal conditions are on a site," Browning says, "and views archaeology as the same thing as someone coming in and defining wetlands and hazmat locations.

"Unfortunately, there are a lot of projects that never get a look and 17th- and 18th-century sites get obliterated."

Although developers can usually move graveyards after going through the proper court proceedings, Lipowicz says she does not like to see this happen. "If they'd just leave them alone, it wouldn't be an issue." S



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