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An Expert Chats 'Cemeteries Of Illinois'

Nearly everyone will visit a cemetery at some point in their life - but most don't realize the rich diversity of history they have to offer. They contain insights about folklore, religion, art and society at large. So postulates Hal Hassen, who has been a cemetery enthusiast since his youth. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York where he would explore historic cemeteries. 

The retired archaeologist now lives in Sherman and spent over two decades helping manage dozens of cemeteries for the Illinois Department of Natural Resource as an archaeologist. Hassen co-authored a book with Dawn Cobb, released earlier this year, calledCemeteries of Illinois. Both will give a presentation on the topic in Springfield on Wednesday - information is at the bottom of this post. 

In the book there's info and photos from cemeteries across the state, including pre-historic burial mounds. Hassen says cemeteries as we know them today have changed over time - from familial burial plots on farmland, to large plots later being designated for entire towns and cities to bury their dead. "They really represent the first places where you can go and see public art," Hassen says. He explains early settlers made grave-markers for their own family members out of easily accessible materials like wood and sandstone. "These all represent changes over time in technology, in the economy, consumerism, society - beliefs." Cemeteries are good representations of overall history in the state, says Hassen.

Even though the historical value is rich, many cemeteries have already been lost due to neglect and lack of public funding for upkeep."There is a great need for the preservation and protection of historic cemeteries, we're losing them all the time," says Hassen. He gives credit to the types of people he would often run into in his work - those who volunteer to record the history of these burial sites. "There are folks in various counties who spend a lot of their free time going out, finding abandoned burial grounds so they can record where they are and make that information available to others." The book Cemeteries of Illinois holds insights for those folks, historians and the general public alike.

Hassen will be joined by Dawn Cobb at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield on Wednesday evening to give a presentation on this topic, called '"Learning about the past from burial grounds." More information on that event is here, and information about the book can be found here.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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