Look close: Your average cemetery may hold more than meets the eye. Go back far enough and you might find a piece of art. Look ahead and you might find a tourist attraction.
Beth Santore, founder and chair of the Ohio Chapter of the Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS), was the guest speaker at the Feb. 19 Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Anthony’s restaurant in Somerset.
If you ever take a good look at an old tombstone carving in an old cemetery, you might find a piece of art as intricate as any found at any antique store, and it is that kind of specialized art and the history behind the artist that draws Santore’s interest.
“It’s exciting. I’ve been interested in cemeteries since I was a kid, and I was lucky that I had parents who encouraged that interest,” Santore said. “If we were driving and I saw one, they would stop and let me look around and once I got my license it was all over.”
Santore started her own website (graveaddiction.com) in 2003 and became involved with AGS in 2004. Together the organization of approximately 1,000 members nationwide, including eight in Perry County, cross the country exploring not graveyards, but what Santore calls “Little outdoor museums.”
“(AGS) is a great group of people. They are cemetery geeks. We have an annual conference, we call it cemetery camp, and it’s 24/7 cemeteries. We have late night presentations; show pictures of our trips, but the organization is great and we do a lot of outreach to areas.”
There are 11 chapters of the AGS across the country with the annual meeting and conference each June, members travel across the country for the session. Groups also travel to find a unique look at the past, Santore says a future tour of New Lexington cemeteries and some in the southern part of the county is possible.
“There is a lot of interest in our cemeteries here, and that is what our group is all about,” Santore said. “There are a lot of people who want to come to (Perry County) to see them. We here that there don’t have anyone famous buried here, but we don’t necessarily come for that, people come to see the artwork.”
Santore said an AGS tour through Noble County Indiana was a great success: “People come to see cemeteries and any other historic site along the way and that’s what I would like to see here. I like studying the art and the history behind the tombstones, I like researching the carvers and finding out a little bit about their past. If they are hand carved they are individual pieces of art. Families move away, buildings get destroyed, that little tombstone with a person’s name on it might be the only sign left that they were here, it’s a link to our early pioneers.”
For more information about the opportunity for tourism and preservation of local cemeteries visit gravestone.org.