Brothers talk research on cemeteries, tombstone art

Logan Raschke, Managing Editor

Cemeteries are not appreciated in the same way they were in the past.

Kevin Baumann, a worker and restorer in the cemetery monument industry, said cemeteries used to be like parks.

After the Victorian Era, people would visit them just as they would visit a park. It was a recreational activity, he said.

Kevin Baumann said families would have reunions at the cemeteries, right alongside their dead kin. Paul Baumann, a cemetery restorer and historian, said Sunday dinners were often hosted there, too.

Kevin Baumann said once medicine started to advance, something happened.

“They weren’t scared of death in the same way, and as modern hospitals and the modern age of medicine came upon us, all of a sudden, probably for the first time in history, humans had this new fear of death and this new fear of cemeteries,” he said.

Paul Baumann added that this newfound aversion to cemeteries began between the years 1900 and 1910.

Kevin Baumann said this is probably why the idea of cemetery research and preservation was not pushed for a long time: People were afraid.

Brothers Kevin and Paul Baumann said their own almost 20-year-long research project on cemeteries sort of happened by accident.

They were tasked with a restoration project for East Humboldt Cemetery in Arcola back in the year 2000, which entailed clearing areas of trees and brush and ensuring that tombstones that had fallen would be re-set.

During the project, the brothers noticed that one of the monuments in the cemetery was signed.

“We thought, ‘That’s weird.’ We had never seen that before,” Kevin Baumann said. “Over time, we started to look into it and we found more and more of these signings, and pretty soon we decided we need to expand to another county and another county; I believe, to-date, we have attempted the largest cemetery study in the history of mankind.”

He said they have been to about 3,000 cemeteries, found over 25,000 monuments that were signed and presented their research several times in the past 20 years.

Regarding tombstone art, they have observed symbolic imagery, different mediums, architecture, unique shapes and how it is maintained, among other subjects.

Actually studying tombstone art is rather uncommon, Kevin and Paul Baumann said. The Association for Gravestone Studies, a group made up of experts in different fields of gravestone studies (not just art), has only about 2,000 members worldwide, Paul Baumann said.

Kevin Baumann said part of why the brothers research tombstones that have been signed is to record the companies that have manufactured them because many of those records are missing or never existed.

“(There are) huge areas, huge gray areas that are kind of left to be determined, so that’s what really kind of drove us to keep expanding the study area, and pretty soon we ended up with 37 counties,” Kevin Baumann said.

Without anyone to maintain or restore cemeteries, sometimes tombstones deteriorate and become forgotten.

“We have literally seen in our 20 years stones that existed that currently do not—that literally turn to powder,” Kevin Baumann said. “Some of these marbles will literally turn to dust.”

Paul Baumann said part of the research process includes reading every tombstone in the cemeteries they have visited, and to their surprise, some of them “are actually physically gone” and have decayed into nothingness.

Kevin and Paul Baumann said the research they have done could help preserve cemeteries.

Kevin Baumann said some cemeteries have utilized glass houses to preserve tombstones that have already shown signs of decay.

Paul Baumann said oddly enough, a huge aspect to cemetery preservation is encouraging families to bury their loved ones in them.

Once a cemetery is closed, out of space or otherwise inaccessible, townships and communities can no longer afford to keep them running because that revenue is gone.

The root to preserving cemeteries, which house artifacts of people’s histories, goes back to appreciating cemeteries.

“In terms of preservation, in terms of like a national effort, the main thing I think we can encourage is more people to love cemeteries and be in cemeteries,” Kevin Baumann said. “When people go and visit a cemetery, it tends to be maintained. When people forget about it and no one visits it, it gets overgrown.”

Logan Raschke can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected].