“Cemeteries are among Rhode Island’s most unique and often overlooked cultural resources,” says Sarah Zurier, the principal historic preservation specialist at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission (RIHPHC).
“Nearly 3,000 sites have been identified in our small state,” she continues, “including Indigenous Peoples’ burial places, family plots on rural farmsteads, church graveyards, picturesque garden cemeteries, cemeteries established by religious communities, veterans’ resting places, and more.”
This month, those interested in learning more about preserving these crucial markers of culture can get involved in the work firsthand through Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries Awareness and Preservation Weeks, an ongoing series of outdoor programming provided through a collaboration between RIHPHC and the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries (RIACHC).
The annual initiative began as a single day in 2016 with an event set up to thank a volunteer cemetery cleanup crew in East Greenwich, according to RIACHC chair Pegee Malcolm. But as more cities and towns wanted to get involved, the program expanded to a month, April, and then two months to include May, as well.
This year, events take place in every city and town throughout the state and include free outdoor public programs, historic tours, volunteer cleanups, conservation demonstrations, and talks.
Though programming began in April, there’s still plenty of time to get involved this month. In Newport, participate in gravestone cleanings at Clifton Burying Ground on May 7 and at Coddington Burial Ground May 14, and a fence painting project on May 21 at Common Burying Ground.
Guided tours throughout the month invite participants to experience Burr’s Hill Park in Warren, Allin Yard in Barrington, and more East Bay cemeteries to be added to the schedule. On May 28, Bristol Historical & Preservation Society hosts a Community Day centered around the town’s historic cemeteries.
“While many are familiar with historic cemeteries like Providence’s Swan Point and Westerly’s River Bend, there are hundreds of early burying grounds and farm families’ burial lots off the beaten path,” shares Zurier. “Many of these sites are endangered by development, overgrowth, and neglect.”
“Historic cemeteries tell the stories of individuals and families,” says Zurier, “of landscape design, grave marker artistry and technology, religious beliefs, traditional cultural practices, and community development.”
For a full list of events and programming, visit Preservation.ri.gov/RICW
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