The term 'perpetual care' takes on new meaning in the state's oldest cemeteries
Elisabeth Hanson spent years maintaining a tiny cemetery in Champaign County for an unusual reason.
Hanson has no loved ones in the one-acre Tomlinson Pioneer Cemetery Prairie, but that graveyard is fertile ground for wild quinine, wild hyacinth and hazelnut, remnants of some of the state's original plant life.
Illinoisans will never again know what it was like to see the oceans of prairie that once covered this state. As more asphalt suffocates more acres of purple clover and blue aster, it's even hard to imagine the way it was. Ironically, certain of the old cemeteries will enable us to glimpse that past. These places of the dead are teeming with life. The islets of native flora and fauna are few and far between, but they're almost all we have left of original prairie. And 18 such cemeteries established by Illinois' pioneers have — like the Tomlinson Cemetery — been designated by the state as nature preserves. These country graveyards, which track early settlements, are concentrated mostly in the northern half of the state.
Don McFall of the state Department of Natural Resources inventories those cemeteries that qualify as official natural areas. He says they're still teeming with so much original plant life because they were laid out before widespread land use. The "prairie cemeteries" were identified in the late 1970s in a survey conducted by the state Department of Conservation and the
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University of Illinois. Using volunteer amateur botanists, the survey examined 3,000 cemeteries and found 26 that had "high quality prairies," according to McFall. "They were frozen in time," he says. Soil samples showed the land hadn't been disturbed. "That's extremely rare in Illinois."
Many of these tiny (one-half- to five-acre) cemeteries are in scenic spots — on knolls or hills. Typically, a generous farmer set aside a comer of his land as a family and community burial ground.
"When Illinois was first settled, it was a wild and woolly place," says Michael Jeffords, an entomologist with the Illinois State Natural History Survey. "But within 60 years, the settlers tamed the land and plowed up the whole state, except for where they buried friends and relatives." However, a couple of generations later, there was usually no one left to care for the cemeteries, and they grew wild, leaving a gift for the future and a monument to the past. "It's an unintentional and fitting memorial to the pioneers, because it's a part of the landscape they knew," McFall says.
A few of these prairie cemeteries are cornucopias of flora. Some are home to 100 or more types of native plants, including ones that are rare or endangered in the state. Often there are no other places to find species with such appropriately ominous monikers as goat's rue, showy tick-trefoil, cancer root, lead plant, hoary puccoon and rattlesnake master.
"A small cemetery can easily have 150 different plants," McFall says. "Most are wildflowers like the shooting star, gentian, blazing star, purple and yellow coneflowers and wood lily." In the spring, the five-acre Weston Cemetery Prairie in McLean County is "a carpet of wildflowers," Jeffords says. While it harbors hundreds of species, the cemetery is surrounded by only one — corn. "It's ironic that the whole state used to be flowers with a patch of corn, and now it's the total reverse."
Protecting high-quality prairie cemeteries is a several-step process. The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the governor have to approve a landowner's application to dedicate the land as a nature preserve. If the application is approved, the owner loses development rights.
While status as a nature preserve protects these slices of original prairie from development, it doesn't protect them from vandalism or aggressive foreign plants. Neither is easy to contain. The state's grave protection law affords some recourse against human threats. Meanwhile, the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act stipulates penalties for disturbing designated prairie cemeteries. Conservationists have also purchased land adjacent to some prairie cemeteries as additional protection. "Some of these cemeteries are just barely big enough for these plants to survive," says McFall. The extra land will help the prairie plants thrive and will buffer them from the fatal herbicides that blow in from the fields.
But long-term survival of the prairie cemeteries may depend on extra help from human hands. Officials from the state Department of Natural Resources and local volunteers help landowners protect the prairie remnants from invaders.
Volunteers like Elisabeth Hanson do double duty as watchdogs and curators. She says the volunteers help clean and restore the cemeteries. Sometimes they conduct intermittent burnings to help get rid of the aggressive foreign species that settlers planted as grave decorations, but that now choke the indigenous growth. "Some people create a prairie by planting prairie seed," says Elisabeth Hanson. "In these cemeteries all of the native plants are authentic to the site, so it's as close to what the Indians saw as you can get." McFall calls people like Hanson vital to these natural areas. "They have a passion for them," he says. They want to preserve one of the last links to our past. "You can look around and see how the whole land used to be," Jeffords says. "You get a little affinity for the settlers."
Tara McClellan McAndrew is a free-lance writer who has an interest in the environment. She has written about prairie cemeteries for The Nature of Illinois, a publication of The Nature of Illinois Foundation.
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