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 Pearson/Hunt Family Cemetery — 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 zoom by the family cemetery, sandwiched between the road and a private home, retired history teacher Mary Lipsey points to a green carpet of periwinkles and says, “Over a hundred years ago, periwinkle and cedar trees were planted in cemeteries. Periwinkle 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 Sunday, Lipsey led a troop of Boy Scouts to the small, long-forgotten-looking Pearson/Hunt Family Cemetery. According to Lipsey’s research there are 15 people buried on the site, but the county says plant growth and yard debris make an estimate difficult.
Within the first 15 or 20 minutes of work, the near dozen Boy Scouts, who belong to Troop 1983, have made a serious dent in removing brush, half fallen trees, and trash and also managed to clean the headstone of Nellie J. (maiden name Hunt) Pearson, who died on April 20, 1942.
Since her death, Fairfax County has grown around Pearson. The former farm where she is buried is now 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 found in Fairfax city. Of these cemeteries, about 75 percent are small family sites, Lipsey said, which have fallen into neglect and disrepair.
Lipsey, who retired from teaching seventh-grade history at Lake Braddock Secondary School in 2003, leads the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association, a volunteer organization with about 20 active members who organize and lead cemetery cleanups in an effort to preserve aging historic sites. So far, the group — founded in 2008 — has made a small but important dent (about 22-23 clean-ups) 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, whisky bottles and things like that.”
Photos posted on the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association website 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 bee hives to the general store roof to prevent Union troops from stealing his honey.
The Marshall family cemetery, located next to a 7-Eleven, became the first clean-up project and the driving force behind the founding of the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association. Its story marks only the beginning of what Lipsey says she has discovered of Fairfax County’s past since beginning her efforts.
“There’s a cemetery in Fairfax where four family members died in 1918, so that was probably the Spanish flu,” she said. “The soldiers brought it back with them from World War I… A lot of the stuff I’ve learned is about the military and the Civil War. I found — in Centreville — an African American who had been drafted into the United States Colored Troops [during the Civil War] and he didn’t know it. And he had been arrested. Someone had been paid $30 to bring him in. He spent two years in the army.
“I had all these questions about how an African American living in Centreville got drafted and how would he find out? What did they do? Send him a letter or put it in the newspaper?” Lipsey asked, saying many could not read during this time in American history, especially blacks who had been denied education.
Cain Duncan, the man in this story, was born in Fairfax County in March 31, 1840, and died March 21, 1927. He was buried at Cub Run Memorial Gardens in Centreville. It is not known how he died, but his records — now kept on the preservation association’s website — say he gained the rank of sergeant in the United States Union Army, the U.S. Colored Infantry and fought in the Appomattox Campaign. He was drafted in the army on Aug. 4, 1863, at 23 years of age and charged with desertion, as described above.
Stories like this are driving the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association members to compile a Civil War database with the goal of knowing where all of that era’s veterans are buried. So far the group has identified some 400 veterans from the Union, Confederate and Colored troops.
While graves are often marked in stone, they are by no means permanent, Lipsey explains.
“These people aren’t recorded anywhere. If we lose the cemetery, we lose this family’s history,” she said.
The Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association has teamed with area Boy Scout troops to aid its clean-up and preservation efforts. The Pearson/Hunt Family Cemetery clean-up on Sunday was part of Oakton High School senior Grady Moran’s efforts 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 clean-up as his Eagle Scout project back in August.
“Most of them are kind of sad. They’re rundown and forgotten,” said Reed, 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 clean-ups are one-time deals, and many of these cemeteries need adopting.
“Preservation has been the focus of our mission. We wanted to be an organization that someone would call if there was vandalism or a need there,” said association member and Webmaster John Browne, a Fairfax resident who lives near Burke. He said once the preservation effort got going, the group began focusing on education — hosting events at Frying Pan Park to solicit more hands and help residents to start their own clean-up efforts. “We’ve just scratched the surface with that. We’ve brought some attention to the need but we’ve got some work to do.”
Unfortunately, a lot is at risk if these cemeteries continue to fall into disrepair, said association member Dayle Dooley, a Burke resident.
“Even if the families don’t know about it now, there may be one that comes down the pipeline … What we’re doing now could help people who are working on genealogy.”
Part of the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association’s outreach has been to history students at George Mason University. Professor Mills Kelly teaches a “Dead in Virginia” history course, where students choose a metro-area family cemetery to research through land and death records, including those prepared by the FCCPA. Kelly said students are taught how to move outside of the classroom setting to conduct field studies and use an assortment 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.”
While road widening, utility work, construction and storms like the July derecho cause damage to family cemeteries, the real killer of history is neglect, FCCPA 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 explained. Those buried in Fairfax — as recently as 50 years ago — were buried on family farm lots, which may not belong to those families any more.
“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, adding that the group is always looking for volunteers and new members.
Learn more by visiting www.honorfairfaxcemeteries.org.