Almost 125 years ago, 15-month-old Emma Wheeler was laid to rest within sight of her family's church near a stone wall in a New England cemetery.
The church is now long gone, and the cemetery is abandoned. Over time, the toddler's grave and the rest of the Montville burial grounds became obscured by shoulder-high branches, brambles and fern fronds.
It's a scene mirrored at an untold number of abandoned cemeteries nationwide, leaving state and local governments under pressure from residents to clean up the burial grounds out of respect for the dead — without imposing more costs on the living.
Last year, Connecticut joined a number of states that have enacted laws that let towns acquire abandoned cemeteries if they cannot find the legal owners or heirs and if no burials have taken place for generations.
But the new law only allows for the acquisitions and cleanups. It doesn't require towns to do so or allocate any money to pay for the work.
Likewise, officials in many other states say it's proven nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly how many abandoned burial grounds exist, much less find the legal owners or shoulder the cost of cleaning them up. Part of the reason: Cemeteries weren't on tax rolls, so there was little impetus for governments to track their ownership.
Many abandoned cemeteries are the remnants of family farmstead burial grounds. Some were burial grounds for slaves and their descendants, who were segregated from whites even in death. Others are former churchyards abandoned when the churches disbanded or the last sexton died. Some were in frontier territories that were left behind as pioneers moved on.
In Florida, a legislative task force said some counties have more than 100 abandoned cemeteries each, and that thousands of other lost burial grounds probably remain undiscovered.
Researchers a few decades ago estimated that North Carolina had at least 10,000 abandoned cemeteries — a figure that some researchers now think is too low, given the longtime Southern tradition of being buried on the family homestead.
"Especially with the new mobility in the South after World War II, people moved away and there often would be nobody left to take care of the family graves," said John Clauser, a former archaeologist for the state of North Carolina. "The holly takes over, the yucca starts running wild. Within a few decades, there'd be just about no sign to the casual observer that the graves were there."
Clauser's Raleigh-based consulting business, Of Grave Concerns, helps landowners restore or move cemeteries discovered on their property. It's not a rare thing, he said, especially when corporations buy large parcels and discover a cluster of graves on what they thought was just a patch of undeveloped land.
The cost varies, depending on number of plots, the condition of markers, the type of terrain and whether remains need to be moved.
Connecticut's law, which went into effect in the fall, lets municipalities take over abandoned cemeteries if no burials have taken place and no plots have been sold in at least 40 years. The cemetery also must have been left without maintenance for at least 10 years, and either the owner can't be found or doesn't object to giving up the site.
Michele Pedro, who has explored the remnants of the Montville burial ground in search of her husband's ancestors, pressed town officials to restore it, resulting in a volunteer cleanup event.
But that's just a temporary fix.
Montville officials currently have no plans — or the money — to acquire the cemetery, despite having permission to do so through the new law. The land hasn't been on the tax rolls for centuries because of its status as a burial ground even though its owner, the Chesterfield Baptist Church, disbanded in the late 1800s.
Its graves date to the late 1700s and include veterans of wars dating to the Revolution.
"I find it absolutely horrifying that anybody would disrespect the dead by letting this get so out of hand," Pedro, of Waterford, said on a recent afternoon as she pushed through branches and brush before the cleanup.
"Even if you don't care about the dead or about history, it's only common decency to care at least enough about the veterans in a place like this to give them some dignity," she said.
Since many such cemeteries aren't on the tax rolls, chasing down today's legal owners can be a challenge.
That's the case in Lowell, Mass., where volunteers are tending a half-acre cemetery on land whose most recent owners of record have been dead for more than a century.
With no taxes to collect, no one has aggressively tried to track down the landowners' descendants. They probably number in the hundreds and likely have no idea they have a stake in an abandoned cemetery.
In Easton, Conn., the town has taken over three abandoned cemeteries since the fall and paid for the cleanups with grants, donations and an adopt-a-grave program.
"The places were going to rack and ruin and becoming a bit of an eyesore," said Town Clerk Derek Buckley, also the town's sexton. "We all felt an obligation to these people because many of them were the founding members of our town."
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