Periwinkles and cedar trees are among the telltale signs you are in or approaching an aged family cemetery.
These signs and a lone headstone are what distinguish the small — an overgrown, quarter-acre patch where 15 people are believed to be buried — from the miles of wooded area just off Fox Mill Road in Oakton.
As cars zoomed by the family cemetery, sandwiched between the road and a private house, Mary Lipseypointed to a green carpet of periwinkles.
“Over a hundred years ago, periwinkle and cedar trees were planted in cemeteries,” Lipsey said. “Periwinkles provided a ground cover, which did not need mowing. Cedar trees were planted before embalming was used in order to help mask the smell of decomposing bodies. One of my friend’s grandmothers always called them cemetery trees, not cedar trees.”
On Nov. 11, Lipsey led a troop of Boy Scouts to the small, long-forgotten-looking cemetery. According to Lipsey’s research, there are 15 people buried on the site. Fairfax County officials said plant growth and yard debris make an estimate difficult.
Within the first 20 minutes of work, the near dozen Boy Scouts of Troop 1983 made a serious dent in removing brush, half-fallen trees and trash. They managed to clean the headstone of Nellie J. (maiden name Hunt) Pearson, who died April 20, 1942.
Since her death, Fairfax County literally has grown around Pearson. The former farm where she is buried is a residential community. Her headstone, which leans against a tree, has faded to show barely an outline of her name and an unclear date.
There are as many as 400 cemeteries in Fairfax County, according to a database run by the Virginia Room, a Fairfax County public library resource in Fairfax City. Of those cemeteries, about 75 percent are small family sites, which have fallen into neglect and disrepair, Lipsey said.
Lipsey, a retired Lake Braddock Secondary School history teacher, leads the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association, a volunteer organization with about 20 active members who organize and lead cemetery cleanups to preserve aging historic sites. So far, the group, founded in 2008 by Lipsey and other community members, has made a small but important dent (about 22 to 23 cleanups) in maintaining historic cemetery sites within the county.
“In [April] 2008, we got information that the Burke Marshall [family] cemetery had been vandalized,” Lipsey said. “The marker [an obelisk] had been spray-painted and carved into with pentagrams. . . . We pulled out 15 [garbage] bags of beer bottles, whiskey bottles and things like that.”
Photos posted on the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association Web site show the Marshall family cemetery stone obelisk covered with black lettering “They Will Live For-Ever,” a red star and a red hammer and sickle, usually linked to the Soviet flag.
“James Marshall owned the general store and was very open about his Confederate support,” Lipsey said. Marshall was reported to have taken flight with his beehives to the general store roof to prevent Union troops from stealing his honey.
The Marshall family cemetery, just off Burke Road next to a 7-Eleven, became the first cleanup project and the driving force behind the founding of the preservation association. Its story marks the beginning of what Lipsey said she has discovered of Fairfax County’s past since beginning her efforts.
“A lot of the stuff I’ve learned [through the association’s efforts] is about the military and the Civil War.”
Association members have compiled a Civil War database with the goal of knowing where all that era’s veterans are buried. So far, the group has identified about 400 veterans, Lipsey said.
Although graves often are marked in stone, by no means are they permanent, Lipsey said.
“These people aren’t recorded anywhere. If we lose the cemetery, we lose this family’s history,” she said.
The group has teamed with area Boy Scout troops to aid its cleanup and preservation efforts. The Pearson/Hunt family cemetery cleanup Nov. 11 was part of an effort by Oakton High School senior Grady Moran to gain his Eagle Scout rank.
“It needs a lot of work, and it’s something we can do. We want to clear out all the brush from here and make a mulch pile out front,” Moran said.
Among his responsibilities are making sure he and his fellow Scouts do not do additional harm to the cemetery site.
“The requirement [for an Eagle Scout project] says we have to do a service project that benefits the community or a nonprofit.”
Fellow Scout and Oakton junior Dave Reed, 16, also chose a cemetery cleanup as his Eagle Scout project.
“Most of them are kind of sad. They’re rundown and forgotten,” Reed said while using distilled water to clean dirt from Pearson’s headstone.
Boy Scout involvement has been key to the preservation association’s efforts, but the cleanups are one-time deals, and many of these cemeteries need adopting.
“We’ve just scratched the surface” with preservation efforts, said association member and Web master John Browne, who lives near Burke. “We’ve brought some attention to the need, but we’ve got some work to do.”
Much is at risk if the cemeteries continue to fall into disrepair, association member Dayle Dooley of Burke said.
“Even if the families don’t know about it now, there may be one that comes down the pipeline,” Dooley said. “What we’re doing now could help people who are working on genealogy.”
Part of the group’s outreach has been to history students at George Mason University. Professor Mills Kelly teaches a “Dead in Virginia” history course, in which students choose a family cemetery to research through land and death records, including those prepared by the preservation association. Kelly said students are taught to move outside the classroom to conduct field studies and use a variety of records.
“One of the great things about the class is being able to connect the students to groups like the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association. There are groups like this all over the nation,” he said. “Almost every locality has some kind of historic society. What sets them apart is, beyond collecting historic information, they actually go out and do preservation work.”
Although road widening, utility work, construction and storms damage family cemeteries, the real killer of history is neglect, preservation association members said.
“Benign neglect. Families are dying. You’ll see these situations where a great uncle has been taking care of a family cemetery and now he’s 90 years old and when he’s gone there’ll be no one left,” Dooley said.
Commercial cemeteries where families can buy lots are a more modern, urban idea, she said. As recently as 50 years ago, people in Fairfax were buried on family farm lots, which might not belong to those families anymore.
“We’re not interested in any particular family or a specific war like the Civil War or Revolutionary War. We’re interested in everything,” she said.
For information, visit www.honor