The Cemetery Lady
Lake Region Electric Cooperative member preserves cemeteries across Oklahoma.
“When we restore a cemetery, we honor the people buried there by showing them their lives were indeed important, just as we hope after we’re gone, people will feel our lives mattered too,” Sparks said. Photo by Dana Attocknie
Sparks' preservation skills have saved many graveyards from disrepair. To date, she contributes to five cemeteries, has restored and maintained two, and has repaired countless tombstones.
She recommends to restore a cemetery to create a list of people, choose a date to meet, and set up officers with clean-up and decorating days.
Her goal is to honor the people buried in cemeteries.
The golden leaves of fall pave a tree-lined road that snakes uphill to a nearly forgotten cemetery. Aside from a few noticeable graves, what’s left are broken pieces of tombstones peeking out through the leaves; names no longer visible.
“To let this disappear, you’re letting a piece of history disappear,” Jennifer Sparks said as she walked through the hilltop clearing, known as Martin- Reese cemetery, in the community of Manard, Okla.
Sparks, who is known by friends and neighbors as the “Cemetery Lady,” is trying to save what is left of this cemetery.
“We’ll never be able to restore it, but I’m trying to preserve it,” she said. Her preservation skills have rescued other graveyards, and once during a 2004 family reunion, Sparks and some of her relatives tromped through the woods to find one of their family cemeteries in Sallisaw, Okla., the Brackett cemetery.
“Trees were growing through it and the stones were falling over, and this is my ancestors,” Sparks said.
After the reunion she wrote to everyone who attended and asked for help to hire a lawn service. To this day, people continue to donate money and their cemetery is constantly maintained. She and a friend also recovered the Terrill-Price cemetery in Woodall, Okla.
For Sparks, who has “cleaned up many an old cemetery,” hanging out in a graveyard is nothing new. In fact, it’s tradition.
“I grew up in a family that loved history and genealogy,” Sparks said. “I always went to all the family cemeteries with my mother when I was a kid.”
She’s been interested in genealogy since before she can remember, and along with her cousin, Delcyne Grant, she’s traveled to cemeteries all over Oklahoma and the surrounding states, to find the graves of her ancestors.
“I’d be looking for a grave or a particular cemetery, I kept getting these, ‘Well it’s out in the middle of the field,’ or I would go to one and it would be so grown up, you couldn’t walk through it. I just couldn’t bear that they were getting lost,” Sparks said. “When you get to the point where you can’t see it or you can’t find it because somebody has bulldozed it or it’s been totally neglected to the point that it’s lost, it’s disheartening and it’s sad. So I do what I can that’s within my power and within my reach.”
Sparks has a certificate in cemetery restoration from the Chicora Foundation, a bachelor’s degree in history education and she’s also learned about the different types of stones and how to clean them.
“The very best thing you can do for a tombstone is leave it alone … unless you’re going to restore it correctly,” she said. “Before you decide to make any repairs to a cemetery, consult a preservationist. Sometimes the best of intentions can do irreparable damage.”
The National Park Service website and the Oklahoma Historical Society are good resources, Sparks said. In addition, there are preservation societies, seminars and cemetery associations that offer guidance.
“The thing about it is, you just have to do it,” Sparks said. “It’s easier than people think. They let it be overwhelming. They look at it like it’s too much of a task, and it’s really not hard to save a cemetery.”
Sparks said, the first step is to create a list of people, then choose a date to meet. Officers can be selected and clean-up and decorating days can be set. She said there are grants and loans available too.
“That’s something near and dear to her heart,” Shirley Pettengill said of Sparks. “She’s done a lot of work in the area. She’s sharp as a tack, she knows her stuff and she’s passionate about it.”
Sparks said she loves the history of people; dead or alive, past or present. She contributes to five cemeteries, has restored and maintained two, is restoring one now and has repaired a countless number of tombstones.
“When we restore a cemetery, we honor the people buried there by showing them their lives were indeed important, just as we hope after we’re gone, people will feel our lives mattered too,” Sparks said.