The wind rustles the grasses and snow silently covers the graveyard tombstones. These monuments in stone are chroniclers of past lives; the witnesses for cherished souls now gone. Expressions of love, grief and loss are carved in words, images and phrases. At small rural cemeteries, these are, too often, the forgotten art of love and memory.
These cemeteries played an important role in the lives of early settlers and allowed them to honor their families and friends while fulfilling burial practices that often reflected their ethnic origins and customs. The cemeteries provided a mechanism to record their testaments to a loved one, giving future generations an intimate glimpse into their lives, personalities and pasts.
For historians and genealogists, carved inscriptions and images provide valuable clues about family histories and past lives. Inscriptions give information about family relationships, religious beliefs, occupations, countries of origin, and health, mortality and disease.
Images give us additional information about their lives through artistic expression. Marker materials and fabrication speak to family and community economics and technology.
On the Kansas plains, an elaborate Victorian tombstone tells of a family’s heartfelt loss by depicting a young girl eternally asleep in an open shell of marble.
Along Colorado’s isolated Purgatory River, at a lonely windswept cemetery, the love and loss of Hispano families is carved on sandstone tombstones with folk art images of stars, flowers, diamonds and moons mixed with handcrafted Spanish inscriptions.
In rural La Plata County, hardy early pioneers are remembered with markers of wood, sandstone and metal in small hidden cemeteries. In some cemeteries, loved ones were buried with a boulder or fieldstone as the only indication of their passing.
As small non-maintained rural cemeteries deteriorate, individuals and groups are working to preserve the grave markers and record their information.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Sarah Platt Decker Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and later the La Plata County Historical Society and the Friends of the Animas City Cemetery, worked with individuals and groups to record the 1877 Animas City Cemetery, the oldest identified cemetery in La Plata County.
In 2011, with funding support from the State Historical Fund, the San Juan Mountains Association began recording rural cemeteries in the County.
Today, the SJMA continues that effort with assistance from volunteers from SJMA, the La Plata County Historical Society, the Southwest Colorado Genealogical Society and history students from Fort Lewis College. This work continues with follow-on grants to assemble burial records and document many small rural cemeteries in the County.
The goal of these projects is to work with existing cemetery associations to assemble cemetery records, preserve historical information and provide a searchable on-line database.
This information will help researchers and family historians locate the final resting place of people who migrated into La Plata County in the past; these burial records may provide the important missing piece in the family story.
Ruth Lambert is the Cultural Program director of the San Juan Mountains Association. Reach her at email@example.com or 385-1267.