Grave Matters in Indiana: Restoring a Civil War-era Cemetery and Activating Public Green Space

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The iconic gates.

Some people think cemeteries are creepy. I happen to think of them as stunningly attractive research repositories and peaceful oases in the midst of our densely populated cities and noisy highways. But then, I also happen to like things that are a little creepy. Historically, cemeteries were not only burial grounds, but green spaces where children would play, families would picnic, and smitten teenagers would hold hands, etc. – all that good stuff we do in parks.

Photo by JSG Design.

A portion of the cemetery as it stands today. Lovely, right? (Photo by JSG Design)

In fact, the 21 acres of City Cemetery was the first planned open space in South Bend when it was designed in 1832, and this land is now seen as an opportunity to celebrate the artistry of the wrought iron gates and elaborate monuments, but also as a great opportunity to bring beautiful, recreational space in an area of the city that is in dire need of green space.

But, alas, over time and with the help of privatization and rising burials costs, the function of these beautiful open spaces as public gathering places has really gone by the wayside and is even discouraged. The good news is that we found a group working hard to restore a Civil War era cemetery in South Bend, Indiana, and in an effort to curb future vandalism of the stones and landscapes, they hope to go yet another step to bring back the recreational aspects of cemeteries. The more people and foot traffic, the more the space is activated and made less attractive to troublemakers. We connected the South Bend Parks Foundation, The Historic Preservation Commission of South Bend (HPC), and the History Museum with Craftsman, who went a long way to help their summer restoration efforts with a generous tool donation. The more tools, the more volunteer hands to buff out the stone and clean up the land.

Re-enactors portray local historical figures at a May event. (Photo by the South Bend Tribune)

Re-enactors portray local historical figures at a May event. The media has been picking up on this story quite a bit in May–apparently a lot of people in South Bend weren’t even aware that the cemetery existed because it’s tucked away between neighborhoods. That said, the cemetery plan was developed with over a year of public input and meetings. (Photo from the South Bend Tribune)

To date, efforts to celebrate the legacy of the historic City Cemetery include writing a National Register nomination for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, managing a project to digitize cemetery records, and reaching out to local media to discuss the restoration and vandalism issues. On May 9th, there were guided tours with dozens of historical re-enactors and local history experts telling tales of some of those entombed at the cemetery, which was also in partnership with a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

We will have updates on the restoration work, but if you want to get involved there will be a presentation on June 20th discussing cemetery symbolism, tombstone facts, and proper methods of cleaning headstones, immediately followed by a hands-on workshop on how to clean the headstones with some brand spankin’ new Craftsman tools. You can bet I’ll be at some of these events. The HPC and South Bend Parks Foundation will host volunteer days on July 18th and August 15th for more restoration work.

For more information on City Cemetery, check this out.

For more information on how to get involved, click here.

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2 thoughts on “Grave Matters in Indiana: Restoring a Civil War-era Cemetery and Activating Public Green Space

  1. Please change the destructive “preservation” methods shown at the City Cemetery in South Bend. Using power tools and cleaning wheels causes years of erosion damage in 1 short hour. Suggest you switch to D2 biological solution, a non-destructive cleaner that you spray on and allow the sun to activate. Come back in a few weeks and the stone is clean, but otherwise in the same condition that it was before cleaning. Power tools and cleaning wheels are a quick fix causing long-term destruction.

    • Thank you for the feedback, Judy! I know that they are now exploring alternative options, trying to determine whether the best methods of cleaning these stones are different from the methods that were originally recommended. This is an incredibly dedicated group of people working hard to revive this space for the community at large, and they wish to do it in the best way possible, so I hope you’ll join me in supporting their efforts and continue to help in whatever way you are able. It takes a village for this kind of effort. Thanks!

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