Disappearing history: Central Ky. historian works to document vanishing cemeteries
Denny Lipscombe says his work is key for future generations. But time could be running out.
CYNTHIANA, Ky. (WKYT) - Just north of Cynthiana, in the far corner of a Catholic cemetery full of headstones for mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and veterans, one stone in particular shares precious few lines of an unfinished story.
“Unknown youth,” its etching reads.
No dates, no dash, no description; a simple stone with a small cross is all that marks the final resting place of someone buried alone - someone who may have died alone - also marking the existence of a family somewhere who never knew what happened to their child.
“When I saw that the first time I just had to sit down on the ground,” Harrison County historian Denny Lipscombe said, looking on his computer at a photo of the grave marker. “The anguish those parents went through - their kid disappeared, and they never learned what happened.”
The gravestone at St. Edward’s Cemetery is just one of thousands Lipscombe has photographed, but one that, in ways has haunted him - an incomplete paragraph in a larger story he has worked tirelessly to document.
“It’s about the history of who we were. It’s about who we are,” Lipscombe said. “It’s about connecting people with their people - about their ancestors. That’s what it’s about.”
Over the past several years, Lipscombe has visited 165 cemeteries across Harrison County in his effort to visit and document every small cemetery in his hometown.
It is hard work. Many of the cemeteries he visits are tiny, hard to find, hard to get to, and located on private property whose owners he first has to track down and from whom he has to get permission.
Lipscombe takes photos of the grave markers he comes across, catalogs them on his eight-terabyte hard drive and posts them on his two Facebook groups: Take Me Home, to Cynthiana and Gone But Not Forgotten, Cemeteries and Genealogies of Harrison County, KY. (He has posted roughly 13,000 photos online. Yet he believes he has taken maybe four or five times that many, having to compensate for a tremor.)
But for all the cemeteries he has visited, there are even more he never got the chance to see.
“I know of at least 50 more that are gone,” Lipscombe said. “When I say gone, I mean gone. This happens in every county, everywhere.”
Still more threaten to vanish before he can get to them. (“There’s cemeteries out there that are going to get bulldozed,” he said.)
The Cemetery Preservation Alliance says neglect, inappropriate development and insensitive public policy endanger cemeteries around the world. Resources exist to try to reverse that trend. But time ticks on, and future threats to the living past loom.
That is why - even as physical ailments and disabilities threaten to stop Lipscombe’s work - he knows it is important for someone to keep it going.
“If it doesn’t, it’ll be gone,” he said. “Most of these cemeteries that I’ve got pictures of, they’re going to be gone. And the only record of them ever being in existence will be the pictures that I’ve taken.”
It is a passion project, but it is also much more than that. Lipscombe believes the work he is doing holds a key for future generations.
He has already helped families find graves of lost loved ones. He has also given copies of his research to local libraries and historical societies around the region, knowing that as much as it means to the living, it could mean even more down the line.
“We forget where we came from,” he said. “And when we forget or don’t take the time to know where we came from, then how do we know who we are?”
Like that of the unknown youth who rests on hallowed ground less than two miles from Lipscombe’s home, the larger story, too, remains incomplete - and is now in need of a new generation willing to finish it.
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