It must be noted that cemetery vandalism is often unreported to local press. Our database cannot include unreported vandalism and does not represent the most comprehensive total of vandalism incidents. Instead, it provides a snapshot of some incidents and issues.
In 2017, 105 individual incidents of cemetery vandalism were reported to local press across the United States. While the tally of individual incidents, ranging from New York to Hawaii, Florida to Oregon, is significantly less than those reported in 2016 (184 incidents) the total number of headstones and markers affected increased from 1,811 to 2,353, and estimated repair costs reported by cemetery authorities increased from approximately $488,000 in 2016 to approximately $1,766,000 in 2017.
Cemetery vandalism is a much more common occurrence than it is commonly understood to be. Each year, hundreds of cemeteries experience loss and damage resulting from stolen grave goods, toppled stones, and graffitied markers.
As we noted in our 2016 post on cemetery vandalism, the motivations for such acts vary widely. In many cases, acts of vandalism can be explained by adolescent antisocial behavior – “kids” knocking over headstones for fun or as an expression of control. But in so many other cases, vandalism has a deeper motivation as an expression of political or racial undercurrents. In 2017, racial, religious, and politically motivated cemetery vandalism was pushed to the forefront of American news coverage.
In our recap of 2017 in cemetery vandalism, we review incidents of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents, and the community response that helped cemeteries recover. After August protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, incidents of cemetery vandalism targeting Confederate monuments increased. From this point, we will also discuss cemetery vandalism incidents outside the United States with an eye to similarities of motivation.
Yet despite 2017’s increases in cemetery vandalism severity, responses from law enforcement may have increased in efficacy. A number of vandals who perpetrated cemetery crimes in 2016 were identified and apprehended this year, and responses have grown more robust.
In February 2017, two Jewish cemetery vandalism incidents became national news. Outside St. Louis, Missouri, approximately 175 headstones at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society Cemetery were toppled. Within a week, 100 headstones at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were also toppled.
Vandalism incidents in which more than one hundred headstones are affected are not entirely unusual. However, the two incidents in Philadelphia and St. Louis occurred concurrently with popular malaise around the specter of anti-Semitism – dozens of false bomb threats were made by phone to Jewish community centers around the country in the previous month. When these two cemeteries were vandalized, national and local response was enormous.
While the perpetrators in either incident have yet to be apprehended, and the St. Louis incident was not initially pursued as a hate crime, these two cemeteries became rallying points for resistance to anti-Semitism. The incidents also turned the public eye to the larger issue of cemetery vandalism in such a way that affected future responses to such incidents.
Unfortunately, these two large-scale incidents were not the only examples of anti-Semitic cemetery vandalism to occur in the United States in 2017. In January, two young women and a young man (ages 19, 16, and 20 years old, respectively) were arrested for anti-Semitic graffiti at a cemetery in Scottsburg, Indiana. Also in January, anti-Semitic and anti-police graffiti was found at Oak Grove Cemetery in Hyannis, Massachusetts – an incident that was investigated as a hate crime. Additional incidents in Rochester, New York, and Melrose, Massachusetts in March and July (respectively) were so investigated. In May, another cemetery in Philadelphia was the victim of what police investigated as an anti-Semitic hate crime.
Based on our database, the number of Jewish-targeted cemetery vandalism incidents increased from 3 in 2016 to 7 in 2017. The Anti-Defamation League, which maintains a much more sophisticated database of anti-Semitic hate crimes, noted in September that anti-Jewish incidents in New York state alone increased seventy percent from the first quarter of 2016 to the first quarter of 2017. Moreover, 2016 represented a 56 percent increase from the year previous.
The response to the St. Louis and Philadelphia incidents echoed across the country – monument companies offered to repair damage at a discounted rate, Muslim activists raised tens of thousands of dollars to aid in recovery efforts.
The state legislatures of New York and Pennsylvania discussed raising criminal penalties against those convicted of cemetery vandalism. While New York did see a threefold rise in cemetery vandalism claims to their state cemetery preservation fund, the state declined to increase penalties. In July 2017, the state of Pennsylvania did increase penalties, including a $2,000 fine and possible 30 days imprisonment.
Other Religious and Culturally Motivated Vandalism
In general, religious and culturally-motivated cemetery vandalism increased from 2016 to 2017. While in 2016 a number of African-American cemeteries were targeted for race-based vandalism, such crimes appeared to target other groups in 2017.
Also in August, Cypress Hills Cemetery in Glendale, Queens, New York was vandalized by three young men who spray painted anti-Muslim, anti-Asian, and anti-African American graffiti on cemetery walls. In this case, the perpetrators were filmed by surveillance cameras. The three men were arrested in October 2017 and charged with hate crimes.
After the mass murder of nine worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, national dialogue turned to the removal of Confederate monuments throughout the country. The Confederate monuments in question were, in almost all instances, those set in public space and not in cemeteries. For example, New Orleans city council voted to remove four public Confederate monuments in December 2015, but excluded Confederate monuments in cemeteries from discussion.
In 2017, public discourse regarding Confederate monuments in New Orleans did include cemeteries, but only as possible locations that removed monuments could be relocated. In 2016, only one incident of vandalism targeting Confederate monuments took place, in Raleigh, North Carolina.
After the shocking protests and violence that took place at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, targeted cemetery vandalism increased. Five incidents of vandalism of Confederate monuments took place in United States cemeteries after Charlottesville, as well as one additional incident involving a Union soldier monument in California.
In Los Angeles, California, a Confederate monument placed in Hollywood Forever Cemetery by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1925 was graffitied with the word “NO” in permanent marker. Shortly afterward, the UDC removed the monument and placed it in storage.
Other incidents took place in Fairfax, Virginia, and Columbus, Ohio, where a zinc monument placed in 1902 was pushed from its pedestal and shattered. Its detached head was stolen. At Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach, Florida, a 1941 Confederate monument was tagged with multiple messages in red spray paint. Most recently, Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Rome, Georgia, was targeted when a granite statue was pushed from its pedestal and repeatedly struck with an unknown instrument.
Catching Vandals: “Who Does Something Like This?”
In our 2016 vandalism blog post, we noted that is extremely unlikely for cemetery vandals to be identified and apprehended. In 2017, arrest of cemetery vandals was slightly more likely than in the year previous.
Most notably, the investigation into 2016 anti-Semitic vandalism of Beth Shalom Cemetery in Warwick, New York, came to a close in October when 18 year-old Eric Carbonaro was arrested for the incident. Carbonaro was charged with a hate crime and tampering with physical evidence, after he deleted photographs of the vandalism from his phone. Carbonaro was found to have conspired to commit the vandalism with two other people, one of whom made a meme of Carbonaro’s face under the caption “Secretly spray paints Jewish cemetery and gets away with it.”
In many instances, the presumption that cemetery vandalism is the act of juvenile delinquents is verified. In addition to the three young people arrested for anti-Semitic vandalism in Scottsburg, Indiana, many other teenagers and young people were identified in vandalism investigations. In Benson, near Raleigh, North Carolina, a 23 year-old man was arrested after he became intoxicated and threatened his girlfriend’s family with damage to their cemetery plot. The man knocked over the family headstone in Roselawn Cemetery. Later, he attempted to fix the headstone himself, and finally paid for a professional repair.
In Pacific, Missouri, two 13 year-old boys were arrested for toppling 139 headstones in three cemeteries over the course of one night. In Idaho Falls, Idaho, three teenage girls were arrested for toppling 80 headstones in Rose Hill Cemetery.
In Greenlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Columbia, South Carolina, a 24 year-old man was arrested for damaging more than 100 gravesites.
In September 2017, more than thirty of a total one hundred monuments were toppled in Bohemian Pecenka Cemetery in Marysville, Kansas. The cemetery was cared for by the local high school 4H, whose members overheard their five teenage classmates admitting to the act and turned them in.
In October, a Cordova, Alabama man was arrested for vandalizing Mt. Carmel Cemetery. In an interesting attempt at community policing, the vandal, 23 year-old Joshua Hicks, was brought to the cemetery to meet families whose property he’d damaged. Hicks explanation for why he vandalized the cemetery: “… he likes to get intoxicated, gets bored, and likes to vandalize.”
Other arrests for cemetery vandalism in 2017 included the June arrest of an adult man who repeatedly vandalized Historic Japanese Cemetery in Oxnard, California. This man was known to the cemetery and was understood to have mental health concerns. The cemetery declined to pursue charges. A 48 year-old man in Kahoka, Missouri was arrested for removing marble closures from a mausoleum. In Schenectady, New York, a 43 year-old man was arrested for scratching his “rapper’s name” into a headstone at Vale Cemetery.
International Cemetery Vandalism
Oak and Laurel’s cemetery vandalism database includes all cemetery vandalism-related reports written in English. This usually includes the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, where cemetery vandalism is frequently reported. For example, at Berri Cemetery in Riverland, South Australia, three boys aged 9, 10, and 11 were turned in to the cemetery after their mother found out they had been toppling headstones.
Additional incidents took place in Northern Irish cemeteries, including Belfast City Cemetery and Goldenbridge Cemetery, where the front gate was set on fire. Derry/Londonderry City Cemetery, which was noted in 2016 to have repeated vandalism incidents, did not report any incidents in 2017.
In December 2017, two tour guides in Belfast began tours of the city’s cemeteries as a means of combatting vandalism.
Other international cemetery vandalism events highlight local and regional political strife. In January, cemeteries in Poland and Ukraine were vandalized with Nazi graffiti and anti-Semitic slurs. Both instances were blamed by local press on Ukrainian nationalists. A Jewish cemetery in Lorraine, France, was vandalized in April in an incident that was seen as anti-Semitic. In Lausanne, Switzerland, the Muslim section of a public cemetery was vandalized with graffiti reading “Muslims out of Switzerland.”
Responding to Cemetery Vandalism
Cemetery vandalism can be seen as a barometer for political and social unrest. In 2016, we looked at this aspect of cemetery vandalism primarily from an international standpoint – examining vandalism in Ireland and Armenia. In 2017, cemetery vandalism reflected such concerns in the United States more than in the years previous.
While this increase in targeted cemetery vandalism is very concerning, it must not be overlooked that heightened attention to cemetery vandalism has had an impact. Recovery from vandalism incidents is slightly more often reported and also includes focus on the communities that use and cherish a cemetery. In 2017, some cemeteries even published press releases asking community members to become involved and vigilant before cemetery vandalism occurs.
Criminological theory states that cemeteries which appear cared for and visited tend to experience less vandalism. This understanding appears to have been utilized in vandalism responses in 2017. Closed circuit television, security, and other physical and intangible barriers to antisocial activity have also become more common. Prevention and community involvement are shown time and time again to be the best things to combat cemetery vandalism.
Cemetery vandalism is inevitable, but can be mitigated and prevented to an extent. As we move forward into 2018, we hope to see the kind of police follow-through, community response, and enthusiastic recovery that was seen in 2017 despite the discouraging events that precipitated them.