City seeks historic register status for cemetery

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 26, 2005

Cedar Hill Cemetery, the final resting place for generations of city residents, may soon have its own spot in state history annals.

The city has applied to have the 32-acre public cemetery, opened in 1802, named to the Virginia Landmarks Register. The state Department of Historic Resources' review board will look at the city's preliminary application during its September meeting, said Mark Wagner, an agency spokesman.

Surprisingly few cemeteries meet the stringent requirements to earn recognition on the state and federal historic registers, he said.

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"There is a higher standard for cemeteries," said Wagner. "Churches and cemeteries are natural landmarks and there are so many of them around the state.

"So when the state started doing historic designations back in the 1960s, they set the bar a little higher for them. They didn't want to dilute the importance of the listing."

The review board looks at numerous qualifications in cemeteries: unusually artistic or primitive headstones, elaborate mausoleum designs, monuments to veterans of past wars and the like, Wagner said.

The board also considers who is buried in nominated cemeteries, he said.

The DHR usually gets about 10 requests a year for cemeteries to be considered for the state register, Wagner said. Fewer than three annually typically make it through the detailed nomination process, he said.

"Cedar Hill is a strong candidate," Wagner said. "Cedar Hill is the backbone of the history of Suffolk.

"Movers and shakers from the city n the people who made the community into what it is today n are buried there."

Cedar Hill, which is still in use today, is the final resting place for a local and state political leaders n including mayors, a former governor, a lieutenant governor and a congressman

– and military leaders who date back to the Civil War. Even a lion trainer, mauled to death by a lion while his circus was traveling through Suffolk in the early 1900s, is buried in Cedar Hill.

State and federal recognition of Cedar Hill's historical importance doesn't mean the cemetery will receive additional funding, Wagner said.

"But it will get additional visibility as a landmark," Wagner said. "The main benefit is in raising the education and pride levels in the community."

The designation would get the cemetery listed on state tourism guidebooks that identify historic landmarks, he said.

Cemeteries and other history-related sites have become increasing popular among tourists in recent years, he said.

Theresa Earles, the city's tourism coordinator, agreed, saying that visitors and locals alike often call with questions about Cedar Hill.

"Cedar Hill offers a unique journey through Suffolk’s history where people can find the final resting places of Civil War legends, public officials or long lost family members," she said. "The visitor center’s large wall map of the cemetery is used quite a bit by people researching their family tree.

"You would be surprised as to how many people just enjoy leisurely walks through Cedar Hill Cemetery while they are exploring Suffolk."