Burial Places Can Boost Biodiversity, Restore Ecosystems

Old cemeteries are home to rare or endangered plant species.

overgrown graveyard

Matt Cardy, Stringer/Getty Images

Where humans have buried their dead, ecological systems have often been preserved, even as they have been lost from the surrounding areas. Cemeteries have surprising potential for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem restoration and often end up being islands of natural vegetation, harboring rare or endangered plant species.

Since they have historical or spiritual meaning, they are less likely to be degraded over time, receiving care through conservation and restoration efforts. Most burial sites were created during times when the landscape was extensively cultivated, and even today these burial sites are largely exempt from urban, forest, and agricultural utilization.

Historic Cemeteries in North America

Cemeteries in North America are among the most intensively studied in the world. For example, in the 1960s researchers documented the preservation of prairie remnants in pioneer cemeteries. Several studies since then (Phillippe et al (2010), Anderson et al. (2011), Ruch et al. (2014) have done the same. They have discovered many characteristic species and rare prairie plants and documented species losses.

The protection and management of pioneer cemetery prairies is a daunting challenge. These historic sites are often thought to be abandoned or unkempt, even though the cemeteries retain—at least in part—their original vegetation. People today are conditioned by neat lawns in urban and suburban areas and by widespread intensive agriculture to think of tall grasses as messy or a sign of poor management. It is important, however, to preserve the cultural heritage of cemeteries while also conducting the necessary management to maintain and enrich the natural history value of the site.

A number of historic cemeteries are now state preserves—Bigelow Prairie Pioneer Cemetery State Nature Preserve in Ohio and some of the cemetery sites in Illinois, such as Short Pioneer Cemetery Prairie and Tomlinson State Pioneer Prairie, to name a few examples. 

Across the prairies right now, however, many other historic burial places are neglected and threatened by invasive species, vandalism, and various encroaching threats. One of these was Warren Ferris Cemetery in Dallas, Texas, where invasive plants had taken over and vandalism over the past 100 years meant that the names of many people buried on the site were unknown. 

Warren Ferris Cemetery, Texas

Now, though, Warren Ferris has become a shining example of sustainable land management and ecological restoration. Work is being done to research the names of the people buried on the site. A nonprofit called Friends of the Warren Ferris Cemetery is not only restoring this cemetery, but also aiding other historic cemeteries in the process of setting up nonprofits and developing native landscape plans. 

With the help of its own landscape restoration program, the nonprofit is turning the site back into Blackland Prairie, a wildlife habitat, and Monarch butterfly way station. At the same time it's creating a beautiful environment that builds community and connectivity through nature, while honoring the rich history of those interred on the site. 

Food Tank reports that the group has "removed invasive vegetation, allowing native species to bloom. [It] has documented 50 different species, including slender verbena or Texas vervain, narrow-leaf stoneseed, sunflowers, and junipers." These steps will hopefully "foster beneficial conditions for pollinators such as bees, birds, beetles, butterflies, flies, moths, and wasps," as well reduce soil erosion and facilitate sustainable food production.

Friends of the Warren Ferris Cemetery has proposed a partnership with the Native Plant Society of Texas that would extend the concept of native habitat development and revitalization to 5,500 more neglected historic cemeteries throughout the state.

Restoring Cemeteries for Biodiversity Conservation

It is currently believed that of the approximately 50,000 cemeteries in Texas (of which only 16,000 are mapped on the Texas Historic Sites Atlas), around one third currently have no caretakers responsible for their care. The picture is likely to be similar across other states. This is unfortunate because these rich and important historical and natural sites need to be cherished and preserved, and can even help, as at Warren Ferris Cemetery, to boost biodiversity and aid local wildlife. 

There are some sites where the value of old prairie cemeteries is being recognized, and where work is being done. In Polk City Cemetery in Iowa, for example, the discovery of a rare plant was a positive sign that efforts are working. There is also the Calvary Cemetery Prairie Remnant Restoration Project in St Louis, Missouri, and ongoing efforts on the Fermilab site, with its pioneer cemetery, in Batavia, Illinois.

Hopefully, many more burial sites can achieve the recognition they deserve and be managed sustainably in the years to come.