Several headstones of war veterans and toddlers were toppled and obelisks broken sometime in late February in Radford’s historic Central Cemetery on Lawrence Street between Sixth and Fourth avenues looking south over the city.
The damage was reported to Radford police around an unknown citizen. The police have leads, according to Deputy Angie Frye, but because the incident is under investigation, little information could be released she said.
This is not the first time damage has happened according to April Danner, Museum Director of Smithfield Plantation in Blacksburg and an historian who has led walks in the history-packed cemetery.
“I know there has been vandalism in the past, with stones being stolen and found in frat houses,” she said. “A few cars have run through it [accidently] and did damage and of course, just natural neglect and abandonment has cause lots of issues.”
The cemetery, old enough to be named Central, Radford’s original name, is, like so many cemeteries, interesting and important historically, culturally and artistically Danner said.
Many of the damaged or toppled stones were nearly two centuries old, several were those of children, marked by kneeling lambs, even a sleeping child, the messages worn away, carved like fallen trees for a 16-year-old boy, urns draped with tasseled cloths carrying epitaphs as simple as, “He was a good man” and, “Papa 1874-1898.”
Like a shared common, the cemetery is surrounded by neighbors, some so close they share its fence, but like six other cemeteries in Radford, the land has no real owner obliged to protect or tend the land.
“What happened was, way back when, people donated the land. It was up to families buried there to care for the graves and the property,” Radford City Commissioner of Revenue Cathy Flinchum said.
Without city help, instead, the last vestiges of families and a loose confederation of community and civic groups care for parts of the land.
The Radford VFW replaces the flag when it’s worn out others mow the grass, and keep adopted headstones tidy.
Others are interested in the rich history of the site. Eagle Scouts and Radford University students have performed projects there and historians like Smithfield’s Danner, lead occasional tours.
Virginia code recognizes abandoned cemeteries need protection. One state code states that anyone who “Destroys, mutilates, defaces, injures… tomb/monument/gravestone/other structure/place of burial” is subject to a Class 6 felony.
Not only that, Code 18.2 -125 is titled the “ Trespass at night upon any cemetery” states that “without consent of the owner coming into a cemetery at night for any purpose other than to visit the burial lot or grave of some member of his family member” is a Class 4 misdemeanor.
Tom Klatka, the regional archaeologist of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources simply encourages neighbors to be vigilant.
“If anyone should see someone enter into a cemetery after dark, they should call the police. “
Many people help protect and tidy smaller abandoned cemeteries throughout the county. Damage to these markers is important because of their artistic, historic, even ecological interest Klatka said.
“We just have to keep fixing and respecting as best as we can as volunteer community effort,” Danner at the Smithfield Plantation, who cleans many cemeteries, said. “Since most of the cemeteries even big ones like Central are not really owned or maintained by anyone other than willing neighbors and volunteer groups.”
Anyone with any information about the vandalisms is encouraged to call RCPD at 731-3624.