It’s not the dying that troubles Vernon Peterson, who trudges past his own headstone most days at this all-black burial ground in rural Loudoun County.
It’s what happens afterward, when he’s no longer around to look after Rock Hill Cemetery. For nearly half of its existence, the 122-year-old cemetery — where generations of local African American families are interred — has been carefully tended by Peterson, a fastidious Korean War veteran who grew up nearby in a country village that’s long since disappeared.
But Peterson is 80, and he can’t stop wondering: Who will care for this little-known repository of community and family history when he’s gone?
There are thousands of graveyards scattered across Virginia, many of them small family burial plots on private properties, according to preservationists and historians. Some date to the founding of Jamestown more than 400 years ago.
But they’re increasingly endangered as a generation of caretakers dies off and people with kin buried out back sell off their family land. The burial sites can become overgrown and, eventually, consigned to oblivion.
“The memory of some of these cemeteries tends to be forgotten,” said Thomas Klatka, an archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “It’s a really widespread problem.”
The state is trying to slow the trend by offering cemetery preservation workshops.
Much is at risk, Klatka said. Cemeteries are spiritually significant landscapes whose grave markers tell richly detailed stories about people and communities. They’re loaded with important historical, genealogical and biological information, not to mention dramas and tragedies.
Rock Hill is no different. Among the hundreds of bodies buried there: Vernon Peterson’s granddaughter, who was killed four years ago in the massacre at Virginia Tech.
“Somebody’s gotta take it over,” Peterson said, standing just inside the immaculate cemetery’s green metal gate. He sighed and spit a stream of Southern Pride tobacco juice on the double-wide burial plot he plans to share with his second wife, Sharon, when they both pass. Their names and “Waiting for Jesus” are already inscribed on the headstone. “Nobody has stepped up yet. It bothers me, yes it does.”
Peterson has been a volunteer caretaker at Rock Hill, which is wedged between farms on a dirt road not far from Middleburg, for more than five decades. Drive past — if you can find it — and he’ll probably be working around the graves.
“It’s one of the finer black cemeteries because of Mr. Peterson,” said Loudoun historian Eugene Scheel. “Really, the cemetery is almost Vernon’s life. He’s very possessive of it.”
The sloped woodland was purchased in 1889 from former slave owners who charged the founders four times the going rate because whites were living nearby; breaking through the color line couldn’t come without an upcharge, Scheel said.
Rock Hill quickly became a popular resting place among African American families, including the Petersons. But by the 1950s, it had fallen victim to neglect.
“The place was really grown up bad,” said Peterson, who noticed the disrepair after serving three years in the Army. “You couldn’t get in. You couldn’t see it. I got a lot of kin in here. I had to do something.”
He enlisted some kids to help him pull weeds and mow the grass. Rock Hill’s then-aging caretaker was elated.
“He said, ‘Son, I’ve been looking for 20 years for somebody to take over.’ He forced the books on me,” Peterson said. He pointed at a grave marker with his cane. “This is the guy who turned it over to me: John Colbert. That was 1955. I’ve been here ever since.”
A vulture swooped between naked oak and walnut trees, and an American flag rippled in the wind above Peterson, who slowly began to talk out a to-do list.
“I need to weed-eat around the stones,” he said, shifting the Redskins hat that was askew atop his head. “Get these sticks and things up. Do some raking.”
Peterson, who lives in the nearby speck-on-the-map village of St. Louis, retired in 1995, after more than four decades of carpentry, construction, truck-driving, horse-tending and other jobs. But Rock Hill was always his true vocation.
“If the weather is good,” he said, “I’m up here practically every day.”
The cemetery has 120 family-owned lots, each of which has room for 12 standard-size graves. Peterson charges $50 per lot per year to maintain the cemetery and to help people make burial arrangements. “But some of them won’t pay,” he said. “They wait until I’m not here so they can duck me.”
The money that he does collect is used to cover cemetery expenses, he said. “I never took a dime.”
So why bother then? Peterson, who once helped his father dig graves at Rock Hill, seemed almost insulted by the question.
“I’m the only one that knows this cemetery,” he said. “I know it like the back of my hand. You can’t just walk away from something like this.”
He spit, then headed up the hill, stopping near his tombstone.
“I’ve got kin all around here,” he said. “Here’s my Aunt Josephine; she was buried in ’43.” He pointed out his parents and some siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. “Lots of Petersons,” he said.
“This stone right here, that’s my granddaughter Erin that was killed at Virginia Tech. She’s my son, Grafton’s, daughter.”
Erin was an 18-year-old international studies major when she and 31 others were gunned down by Seung Hui Cho four years ago this Saturday.
As with most people who work around death, Peterson doesn’t tend to get emotional about it. “It’s been happening since the beginning of time; it’s gonna keep on happening,” he shrugged.
But the loss of his granddaughter during a shooting spree in Blacksburg? “That hurts real bad,” he said. “She was a real sweet girl. Real sweet.”
He wandered past the grave of Dennis W. Weaver, whose headstone declares: “Co. D. 1 U.S.C.I.” The markings, Peterson said, are shorthand for “Company D, 1st U.S. Colored Infantry.” Weaver served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
“You see this lady right here?” Peterson asked. He was looking at Annie B. Thornton’s grave marker. “She was married five times, and three of her husbands are buried right on this same lot.” He laughed.
Lately, he’s been busy recording every single grave in a book, to be passed on to his successor. He hopes.
“If somebody was to take it over, I wish they would step up so I could learn them what I know,” he said. “But somebody has to take an interest. And it can’t just be anybody. It has to be a special person.”
Tyler Gore, who owns Royston Funeral Home in Middleburg, worries, too, about Peterson’s replacement. Gore has been around long enough to remember when Rock Hill was overgrown. He remembers how Peterson revitalized it.
“The younger generation, you can’t get them interested,” Gore said. “They don’t worry about tomorrow. Nobody is interested in keeping Rock Hill Cemetery up or maintaining it. They’re not concerned about it as long as Vernon is still doing it.”
Peterson doesn’t need to consult the actuarial tables to know that he won’t be doing it forever. He’s diabetic, with a stent in his heart. And then there were the blood clots in his lungs. He’s already planning his own funeral.
“I’m going to dig my grave right here and put my vault in the ground,” he said, “so when I’m gone, all they got to do is put me in it and cover me back up.”