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Fairfax County will map hundreds of historic cemeteries and graves

A woman crouches near an old fence in a cemetery (via Fairfax County)

Cemeteries are essential guides to the past, documenting ancestries and settlement patterns, but in Fairfax County, hundreds of sites risk being lost to time themselves, with some even unmarked or abandoned.

To prevent that, the county has undertaken a massive archaeological initiative to create a map of their locations to preserve history, provide information for development and more. The county will also create a manual for how to care for cemeteries, according to an announcement on April 14 launching the survey.

“People care about these places,” Aimee Wells, a senior archaeologist with the Fairfax County Archaeology and Collections Branch, wrote in an email. “They care whether they are descendants of the people who are buried or not. They care because the cemeteries are in their neighborhoods, because they’re curious about the past or because they simply have a respect for the resting places of the dead.”

Wells has been helping the public, where a lot of people care about cemeteries but aren’t sure what they can or should do. She said she’s been working with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to create the cemetery manual, and it’s slated to be available on the county’s website later this summer.

“Historic cemeteries are some of Fairfax County’s most important and unique cultural resources,” a webpage about the project says. “However, over time many cemeteries, especially small family burial plots and the burials of marginalized groups such as enslaved and free Blacks, Native Americans, the imprisoned and the poor are particularly difficult to research and locate.”

To that end, the project — which will rely on public input — will seek to find abandoned or lost cemeteries. It will also provide an estimate of unmarked burials.

Over a two-year period, county staff will work to locate some 350 cemeteries, collecting photos and other information, but that number is expected to increase.

“In my time as an archaeologist with the Park Authority, I’d estimate that we document at least 1-2 ‘new’ cemeteries per year either because of our work in the parks, because of the work of cultural resource management firms doing compliance work, and through citizen reporting,” Wells wrote.

Angela Woolsey contributed to this report.

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