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Grave Matters

Call him the History Hunter or Cemetery Sleuth. He’s the guy who treks out to weedy, overgrown, varmint-ridden patches of land to find Kentucky’s ancestors, buried in hundreds of family plots all over the state and lost to time or land development, or reclaimed by Mother Nature.

Booneville resident Tom Barrett has amassed 12,783 photos from 317 such cemeteries in his efforts to find, document, and preserve the cemetery legacies in dozens of Kentucky counties, including Breathitt, Clay, Jackson, Lee, Perry, and Owsley. Barrett has conducted tours to historic cemeteries, set Civil War stones for unmarked veterans’ graves, and raised money through his Web site to buy stones, including one for a U.S. marshal.

“Someone told me, ‘Tom, you will know more people in the cemeteries than you know living before it’s over,’” says Barrett, who was christened “History Hunter” several years ago by Amy Wilson of the Lexing­ton Herald-Leader. “They were right.”

Barrett is one of an army of volunteer cemetery hunters who are unearthing Kentucky’s past and recovering its funeral heritage, one stone at a time, in order to save it in perpetuity. Their goal: reviving, preserving, and in some cases, rescuing the derelict family cemeteries of the Bluegrass.

“There are a lot of challenges in cemetery preser­vation,” says Lisa Cleveland, director of Communi­cations for the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS). “But there are also a lot of Kentuckians who are passionate about cemetery preservation in general, preserving the stones and the history of cemeteries.”

“After people go and look at the restored graves and come back and ask who has done this, it makes me grateful that I’m still well enough to help people who cannot do the repair work themselves,” adds Ray Fletcher, an outdoor enthusiast who works with Barrett on restoration projects. His reward? The smiles, hugs, and handshakes from people whose relatives’ tombstones and gravesites get a welcomed spit-shine.

The KHS operates a Cemetery Preservation Program that offers guidelines in conserving and cleaning stones and repairing and mapping cemeteries, along with other information related to preserving the state’s final resting places. Coordinating the project is Ann Johnson, who has a keen interest in “small cemeteries out in the fields.” Johnson presents workshops on preservation techniques and provides copies of Kentucky Cemetery Laws to help people understand their rights as descendants of loved ones buried in a given cemetery.

“These volunteers are saving their history,” says Johnson. “Not to mention that the area is sacred ground and those buried there deserve respect—and are protected by law.”

The information Johnson provides also helps people at the local level understand that they need to be aware of where the cemeteries are in case an area designated for development contains a cemetery.

Cemetery sleuth teamwork
This cadre of volunteers and specialists do everything from slashing prices of cemetery stones and delivering them, as does Kenny Spence of the Robertson Monument Company in Scottsburg, Indiana, to recording genealogical information such as what Dee Tapp provides for the Web site, to “witching” the land (with the use of dowsing rods) to find stones in these forgotten final resting places, like Jan and Larry Hedgepeth of Hart County.

“Volunteers are valuable in every county,” says Cleveland. “They work closely with the KHS’ genealogical societies and with county cemetery boards that are, in many cases, instrumental in helping save their local cemeteries and histories.”

Some, like the group the Hedgepeths work with, have even built fencing around cemeteries with donated funds; others, like Barrett, have spawned a movement. All agree that cemetery sleuthing is a team effort that takes on a life of its own, including creating Web sites, raising funds, and fostering new missions.

“I named this current project the Owsley County Cemetery Project when we started the site,” Barrett says. “Naturally, it’s part of the Owsley County History and Genealogy Society because, without their help and support, it would have never made it. Nancy Moulton has kept the site up and going and has paid for it the last two or three years out of her own pocket. She is my right-hand person and backbone.”

“Without the team effort, this could not be accomplished as we are an online society,” agrees Moulton, president of the Society and a Kentucky Colonel who was raised in Owsley County. “Tom is the official photographer of all the stones that are on the cemetery site. Joel Meyers from Manhattan, Kansas, has also taken many photos of tombstones over the years. It is and has been a tremendous amount of team effort with finding information to go with the stones—even death and birth certificates—as we are able to find them.”

Others involved include Michelle Williams Cole, who coordinates the stone orders and, several years ago, began saving and transcribing obituaries. Betty Gabbard researches information and also transcribes obituaries. Patty McWilliams from Oklahoma had added close to 3,000 death certificates to the cemetery site. Collectively, the volunteers also founded The Tombstone Placement Project, a mission that started with the placement of military stones.

Adding a new, readable stone
“The first stone in this project was that of an infant on Indian Creek and also marked the 300th cemetery that Tommy Barrett had photographed and recorded on the Owsley Cemetery Web site,” says Moulton. “In fact, this project soon blossomed to placing a new stone near many unreadable stones and in areas where we know who is buried there. We also try to contact relatives to make sure that they wish to have the stone placed when it is a Society donated stone. Many of the persons have been departed from this life for 100 years or more.”

Volunteers also include those who research, file, provide donations, and contribute genealogical information to the Web site.

For Barrett, getting involved in cemetery preservation began with a request from Nancy Moulton in Nevada asking if he could photograph some of her Owsley County ancestors’ graves. Then a man from Kansas asked him if he would take him to some area cemeteries. His hobby soon became a labor of love.

“It gets sad at times,” he admits. “I was doing one cemetery and ran upon the grave of an old friend that I had known all my life. I looked in the next row behind him and there was another one of my old friends. That day I just left the cemetery.”

Barrett returned the next day and finished the job he’d set out to do. And, as is his habit, he speaks to the people he knows beneath the stones.

“If someone was standing behind a tree listening to me they would think I’m crazy,” he says. “Most of the time I say a prayer. Part of it is, ‘I just hope I find someone here that their kin out there is looking for’ and ‘thank you, Lord, for letting me be able to do this.’”

Pay it forward
When Jan and Larry Hedgepeth saw what their friends, Teddy and Vicki Dillard, accomplished in restoring the Brent Cemetery on their land, the Hart County couple decided to do the same for the Light-Ralston Cemetery on their own farm.

“Next thing you know, it grew from one farm and family to another, with people calling as far away as Idaho and Texas requesting help in restoring their family cemeteries in Hart County,” says Jan Hedgepeth, who works full time at Salt River Electric Cooperative in Bardstown. “What started with four friends has grown into a county-wide project, including organizations like the Boy Scouts. There are currently 30 cemeteries completed and more on the list.”

Although the work is ongoing through the year, Hedgepeth says her group works from November through March to clean undergrowth from a site, cut down trees, and remove brush and find the stones with a witching process by using dowsing rods that cross and then uncross as they step off graves. During the summer, the group sprays sites with weed and brush killer to stop the growth. Stones are repaired by cleaning and gluing when weather permits and, according to Larry Hedgepeth, Jan has hit upon a restoration formula of ready-mix cement skimmed over glue that, within a few weeks, returns the stones to their original appearance.

“When we find the grave, we probe the ground,” adds Larry. “A lot of stones have turned over and we dig out the original stone and reset it. We try and leave the entire site as original as possible; you give up a lot of historical value if you change it.”

Like Barrett’s group, the Hart County group has found some high-profile gravesites, including one of George Washington’s bodyguards and many Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers, but more than likely, it is the everyday citizen whose grave—and history—they are restoring. And like the group in Owsley County, the work is very much a team endeavor with volunteers like Dee Tapp contributing time and talents.

“Dee Tapp has spent countless hours on this project, running down genealogical information,” says Larry Hedgepeth.

Still, the part that most amazes cemetery restorers is the knowledge that they are working on a site where someone was buried as family and friends gathered, eulogized, mourned, remembered, and wept.

“When you go out there and think about the day when people were there and buried someone, it’s almost like you can see the family standing exactly where you’re working,” says Larry. “You’re fixing the site back to the way it was the very day they had the funeral.”

“And the stones will stand the test of time,” notes Fletcher, “and be there for future generations to come and visit their families’ graves.”


Kentucky Historical Society Cemetery Preservation Program

Owsley County History and Genealogy Society

Southern Kentucky Genealogical and Historical Research


Resetting stones and reclaiming history is a grave subject, but it’s not without its light moments.

“We’ve had some laughs and we have some stories,” says Jan Hedgepeth, whose group of cemetery sleuths has been involved in cleaning up some 30 family cemeteries. “We have one person who won’t witch (use the dowsing rods) because he says when he takes up those rods and they cross, the hair on the back of his neck stands up.”

She explains the process: “We witch or use dowsing rods to find the stones and graves. You have two pieces of wire and the wires will actually cross when you walk over a person’s grave. There’s no scientific explanation, but it really works.”

Jan’s husband, Larry, recalls a “discovery” that once cleared out a cemetery: “We were cleaning up a cemetery and had some people watching and one of them picked up a shiny metal plate off the ground. One of the guys working with us said it was a casket handle a groundhog had dug up.

“As soon as he said it, everyone cleared out.”

The Hedgepeths and their cemetery crew, including Vicki and Teddy Dillard, have encountered snakes, fallen over tombstones, and been tangled up in tree roots. They’ve been warned of making contact with caskets (and bodies) and have heard stories of evil-doers buried six feet under who still exert a malevolent influence.

“People have told us about stones over evil people and we’ve fixed their stones—but the stones slid off,” says Larry. “A lot of people are real superstitious about cemeteries.”

“Of course, we’ve all heard, ‘We wouldn’t go probing around in a cemetery, you might poke into a body,’” adds Jan.

In fact, the Hedgepeths’ teenaged grandsons, Adam and Matthew Thompson, and the Dillards’ grandson, 8-year-old Ethan Jones, frequently accompany them to the cemeteries but have been warned off the probing process.

“They think witching graves is great, but they won’t probe,” says Larry. “They’re gun-shy. They have people telling them they’ll be probing and hit a casket or stick somebody and hear them groan.”


According to the Kentucky Historical Society’s Ann Johnson, with the Cemetery Preservation Program, in terms of access to these family cemeteries, if a preservation project is being undertaken by volunteers who are not descendants of those buried in the cemetery, permission from the landowner is required.

If, on the other hand, a person is a descendant of someone buried in a cemetery located on land they no longer own, the landowner is to give them access to the cemetery at reasonable times.

“This is the opinion of the attorney general,” says Johnson. “It is case law and has been recognized by the courts for a long time.”

Johnson maintains a database of cemeteries that people choose to register with her. It is a continuation of the database that was started by the Attorney General’s Office in 2000-2001.

Gaylord Cooper

Anchor/Ships — Hope or Seafaring Profession

Angel — Rebirth; Resurrection

Bird — Eternal Life

Broken Column — Loss of Head of Family

Full-Blown Rose — Prime of Life

Buds/Rosebud — Morning of Life or Renewal of Life

Columns and Doors — Heavenly Entrance

Corn — Ripe Old Age

Cross — Emblem of Faith

Dove — Purity; Devotion

Flower — Fragility of life

Garland or Wreath — Victory in death

Hands Clasped — Goodbyes Said at Death

Ivy — Friendship and Immortality

Lamb — Innocence

Laurel — Fame or Victory

Oak Leaves and Acorn — Maturity; Ripe Old Age

Open Book/ Bible — Deceased Teacher, Minister, etc.

Palm Branch — Signifies Victory and Rejoicing

Sheaf of Wheat — Ripe for Harvest; Divine Harvest

Skull/Crossed Bones — Death

Thistle — Scottish Descent

Thistles — Remembrance

Tombs — Mortality

Torch Inverted — Life Extinct

Tree — Life

Severed Branch — Mortality

Tree Trunk — Brevity of Life

Urn — Immortality*

Weeping Willow Tree — Mourning; Grief; Nature’s Lament

Willows — Earthly Sorrow

Wreath — Victory

* The ancient Egyptian belief was that life would be restored in the future through the vital organs being placed in an urn or urns.

Gaylord Cooper is director of Eastern Kentucky Genealogy Associates, presents seminars in genealogy and cemetery iconology, and wrote Stories Told In Stone: Cemetery Iconology.


Anyone can get involved in a cemetery restoration and preservation project. Learn the steps to accurately mapping a cemetery from Ann Johnson of the Kentucky Historical Society by going to Mapping a cemetery.

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