Cemetery vandalism is not rare or unusual. Its causes vary from adolescent antisocial behavior to politically, racially, or religiously motivated crimes. The only commonality among most instances of cemetery vandalism is the process through which the crime may have been prevented, and how its effects can be mitigated.
While Oak and Laurel Cemetery Preservation, LLC is a New Orleans-based cemetery preservation company, worldwide cemetery vandalism is a special research interest. This blog post is based on an ongoing data collection project based on news reports of cemetery vandalism throughout the year. We catalog each incident, indexing for motivation, type of vandalism (knocked-over headstones, graffiti, theft of grave decorations, etc.), location, and whether an offender is identified and prosecuted. Reports originate primarily in the English-speaking world (United States, Canada, UK, Ireland), but often include English-language reports from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Through compiling the entire year’s reports of cemetery vandalism, it is possible to identify some patterns in criminology, reporting, and recovery. So, prepare to get your headstones toppled, this is 2016 in cemetery vandalism.
The Psychology of Vandalism
Psychological and sociological theories regarding the motivation of vandalism offenders describe the “typical” vandal as a white male, aged 14 to 20, with a background in petty crime. For these offenders, vandalism can be a means of exerting control on a world in which they feel they have little agency (“equity-control theory”). Other explanations include enjoyment theory, which views vandalism as a source of “flow” for an offender inhabiting an otherwise stifled existence, and aesthetic theory, which simply states that vandals tend to target more complex targets than simple ones.
Politically, Racially, and Religiously Motivated Vandalism
The notion that cemeteries represent communities both symbolically and functionally is so often visited that it risks becoming cliché. Yet in no other context is this idea more vital and tragic as in incidents of large-scale vandalism.
The cemetery as embodiment of group identity is a global concept. In 2016, international conflicts repeatedly manifested in cemeteries. In Poland, cemeteries of fallen Soviet World War II soldiers were vandalized, representing a clash between historic and contemporary perceptions of the Soviet Union. Baha’i cemeteries in Iran were systemically destroyed. And the ongoing border conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia yielded accusations of cemetery desecration from both sides.
In Northern Ireland, cemetery vandalism, regardless of motivation, is associated with socio-political sectarianism. Between 2015 and 2016, City Cemetery in Derry/Londonderry was vandalized at least five times, including an arson event. Simultaneously reported as a crime of adolescent perniciousness and motivated by lingering sectarianism, these incidents tie in to the erection of a paramilitary monument in the same cemetery. In nearby Belfast, the vandalism of a Jewish cemetery was viewed as much as an iteration of loyalist/unionist strife as it was an act of anti-Semitism.
Derry City Cemetery did not install surveillance cameras until the fifth reported vandalism incident in two years. Presently, the cemetery seeks the draw of tourism as prevention of vandalism, citing the approach taken by Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. While Glasnevin may have mitigated incidents of antisocial behavior in this manner, the comprehensive management of Glasnevin Cemetery only partially relies on tourism. The cemetery clearly benefits from intensive public and private investment. In this light, Derry City Cemetery has more in common with Dublin’s Goldenbridge Cemetery, which was vandalized three times in 2014-2016.
Politically, racially, and religiously-motivated vandalism is no stranger to cemeteries in the United States, either. In 2016, amidst national discussions regarding Confederate monuments in public spaces and in the wake of the murders at the Emanual A.M.E. Church in Charleston, Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina experienced a large-scale vandalism event. In this case, the “well researched” anti-racist graffiti tagged the graves of Confederate and Lost Cause figures.
The Raleigh incident was the only reported instance of anti-Confederate vandalism in cemeteries. However, racially-motivated attacks on African American cemeteries took place more commonly in 2016. In June, the African-American section of Greenwood Union Cemetery in Rye, New York was stripped of its Memorial Day flags. In August, a Wagoner County, Oklahoma cemetery was vandalized with racial slurs. In this case, a passerby noticed the graffiti and covered it with sheets before notifying the police. Many more cemetery vandalism incidents occurred at African American cemeteries but were determined not to be hate crimes.
The perception of the cemetery as manifestation of cultural identity is especially pertinent in the case of Jewish cemeteries. Cemeteries, along with places of worship, are symbolic of the community itself and are targeted by anti-Semitic vandals in a nearly pathological manner.
Anti-Semitic cemetery vandalism is something to which New Orleans itself is quite familiar: Hebrew Rest Cemetery in Gentilly and Dispersed of Judah Cemetery on Canal street were vandalized with anti-Semitic and Nazi slurs repeatedly in the 1960s.
In 2016, three Jewish cemeteries in the United States were subject to this type of hate crime. Within one week in February, Zion Hill and Dreyfus Lodge Cemeteries were both targeted, resulting in forty total headstones toppled. The Hartford, Connecticut incidents were both investigated by police as hate crimes. Although no report suggests a culprit was identified, Dreyfus Lodge Cemetery restored the damage and held a rededication ceremony after repairs.
Beth Shalom Cemetery in Warwick, New York, was attacked with anti-Semitic graffiti in October 2016. The exterior wall of the cemetery was marked with swastikas and “SS” insignia, days before its congregation observed Yom Kippur.
The historic and systemic use of cemetery vandalism to intimidate and attack Jewish communities was clearly recognized by members of Temple Beth Shalom. In an interview with local Times Herald-Record, Rabbi Rebecca Shinder stated the vandalism “represents hatred and persecution of the Jewish people throughout the centuries. It’s a symbol of hatred and intimidation.”
Days after the incident at Warwick, hundreds of community members arrived at Beth Shalom Cemetery to help remove the graffiti.
Incidents of anti-Semitic cemetery vandalism were also reported this year in the United Kingdom and Germany. Many other incidents likely occurred but were not reported, or were not pursued as hate crimes.
Adolescent Vandalism: Joyriding, Robo-tripping, and Satanism
Identity-based cemetery vandalism is extremely serious and too often falls between cracks. Yet the vast majority (90%) of the 127 specific vandalism incidents in the United States in 2016 were untargeted incidents involving toppled stones, graffiti, and joyriding. In these untargeted instances, 18% resulted in the arrest or identification of an offender, usually within one week of the incident itself.
Identified offenders were typically juveniles – mostly boys but frequently girls. Adults were apprehended for more complex crimes than stone-toppling. In Hickory, North Carolina, a municipal cemetery was collateral damage as a 47 year-old man under the influence of alcohol attempted to evade police by cutting through the graveyard, mowing over 20 headstones in the process before crashing into a veterans’ memorial flagpole. In Douglas, Arizona, a 53 year-old man was caught in the act of stealing more than 70 brass memorial plaques which he intended to sell at a scrapyard.
The most common type of cemetery vandalism is associated with juveniles and other antisocial perpetrators (stone toppling, graffiti, partying in cemeteries, shooting headstones, ATV riding through cemeteries, etc.). By 2016 statistics, the Midwestern states were most likely to see such vandalism. Michigan and Indiana appear to have higher rates of reporting – as cemeteries are known to avoid press coverage of vandalism incidents, it is difficult to say that these states actually have more occurrences of vandalism. New York and Connecticut are also high in the running for vandalism reporting – with nine instances each reported in 2016.
Cemeteries identify “kids” as vandals often due to the nature of the crime. Northville Cemetery, East Bridgewater, Connecticut, repeated stone toppling incidents were accompanied by the appearance of multiple empty cough medicine bottles in the cemetery, suggesting juvenile abuse of the substance, colloquially known as “robotripping.” Hundreds of cans of paint were also dumped in the cemetery on one occasion.
Many of these youths were identified by their friends and caught. At least one was identified when he boasted of his exploits on Facebook. In most instances, juveniles caught vandalizing cemeteries are sent to volunteer in the cemetery itself, allowing the punishment to fit the crime.
Mitigating and Reporting Cemetery Vandalism
While every cemetery will most likely experience an event of vandalism at one time or another, reports and responses appear incongruously isolated. If a vandalism event occurs, it is unlikely that the cemetery will report it. If they do report it, cemetery authorities often do not staff cemeteries well enough to say exactly when the vandalism incident occurred.
Criminological theory is clear in its application to cemeteries: vandals are less likely to attack a landscape that appears as if someone cares about it, or is frequently visited. Prominent signage indicates to the potential vandal that authority has a presence in the landscape. Well-staffed cemeteries seldom have such issues, as the landscape does not readily offer mental “cues” that such behavior will take place without consequence.
Reporting cemetery vandalism is important. Reporting the incident legitimizes the event as a crime and creates a record for future cemetery management. However, journalistic outlets can offer a more effective platform from which to report such vandalism.
- Call a single incident of vandalism a “spike” or “rash” of vandalism. This suggests that the incident being reported can be compared to previous records, which few cemeteries have.
- Encourage or use the word “shocked” or “shocking.” Vandalism is almost inevitable in any sparsely-staffed cemetery. If 2016’s data is any indicator, nobody should be shocked by cemetery vandalism.
- Make bad puns. If someone steals brass objects from a cemetery, please do not refer to the thief as “brazen.” “Grave injustice,” “grave matters,” “grave” anything makes it seem as if you’re having fun with this.
- Include sentiments that suggest the vandal will have ghosts haunt him or her. It seems dismissive in a situation where it is extremely unlikely that the perpetrator will be caught.
- Interview the cemetery owner. Ask hard questions like, “how did this happen?” and “what changes will the cemetery make in security/management as a response?”
- Name the cemetery.
- Identify the closest window of time in which the incident may have occurred.
- Describe the vandalistic act specifically. Many reports speak only to vague “damage.” Specificity can catch the perpetrator.
- Follow up. Many cemeteries recover thanks to community support and volunteer aid. As mentioned above, cemeteries that appear uncared for are more likely to incur vandalism. Helping eschew the image of the cemetery as an abandoned place can prevent future incidents.
Preventing and Recovering from Vandalism
Most cemeteries, and especially historic ones, are managed by companies or groups with extremely meager funds. Even cemeteries with considerable endowments often operate with high overhead and little left over after basic maintenance costs. Cemetery vandalism is costly to reverse.
The cheapest way to recover from cemetery vandalism is to prevent it. If there ever was a “spike” in cemetery vandalism, it happened in the 1960s, coinciding shifts by cemetery authorities to remove full-time staffing from their properties. Full-time staffing permits cemeteries to control the landscape in a way no other management practice can.
Secondly, documentation of any cemetery’s current condition is of utmost importance if vandalism is to be identified in the future. Regular photographs of any property (taken either by the property owner or the cemetery authority) are invaluable in controlling vandalism. Maps, measured drawings, and databases are the armor that can protect a cemetery from tens of thousands of dollars in damage.
When cemetery vandalism occurs, it must be reported to local law enforcement. Most law enforcement agencies are unaware that cemetery vandalism is an issue. While filing a police report may not produce an arrest, it does produce an important record for the cemetery authority and (where applicable) insurance responses.
When the time comes to make repairs, don’t hurry at the expense of quality. Cemetery preservation is a professional discipline populated by experts who have studied methods and materials for years. Sparing expense to make repairs can result in damage that is much more harmful to markers and headstones than the vandalism may have caused in the first place. Proper repairs can facilitate insurance claims, as well.
Direct public interest. Take control of the cemetery’s story. Public interest in the preservation of any cemetery is important even before vandalism occurs. After it takes place, enjoining the cooperation of the public can spell the difference between success and failure. It can even prevent vandalism from taking place again. Many cemetery authorities invite volunteers, hold fundraisers, and fun events that introduce the potential vandal to a welcoming, important place. The fifteen year-old that comes to your cemetery movie night might even be the one who stops his friends from tipping a headstone in years to come.
Cemetery vandalism is a cultural occurrence which will never be entirely eradicated. But it can be better understood and studied. That way, in 2017, perhaps prevention may be more robust and recovery swifter.
 Arnold P. Goldstein, The Psychology of Vandalism (New York: Plenum Press, 1996), 24.
 Emile Lafourcade, “Vandals Strike Jewish Graves: Headstones are Painted with Swastikas,” Times Picayune, July 2, 1967, 1; “Cemetery Vandalism,” Times Picayune, January 21, 1967, 10 (this incident also involved swastikas); “Vandals Paint Gravestones: Hit Dispersed of Judah Cemetery,” Times Picayune, October 27, 1965, 22 (also swastikas).
 Other variations: “Show me the cemeteries of a country, and I will tell you of its culture, its civilization” (attributed to Tallyrand), “Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what I think of your people,” (attributed to Benjamin Franklin), and “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals” (attributed to Sir William Gladstone).
 John Eck, “Preventing Theft and Vandalism in Cemeteries,” Annual Conference of the Association for Gravestone Studies, Salem, OR, 2013.
 Kuri Gill, “Preventing Vandalism,” Annual Conference of the Association for Gravestone Studies, Salem, OR, 2013.