"On stone markers we usually see a date of birth and a date of death, but there is a dash between those two dates that represents an entire person’s life."
August 7th, 2012

Carl Ballenas Cemetery Historian

Carl Ballenas is the official historian at Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens. He has written a book about the cemetery entitled Images of America: Maple Grove Cemetery, and says he has enough for a sequel. We were charmed by his passion and candor about this little understood field.

The duties of a cemetery historian must be markedly different than that of an academic historian – no teaching of classes or publishing in journals, for instance – so what does a cemetery historian do?

It is my role to uncover the lives in the cemetery and to create events and programs to help bridge a gap to the past and teach about our common ancestors. In a way, I teach classes, but my classroom has no walls and I can be as creative as I want to be. There is no guidebook on how to be a cemetery historian, so there is a lot of elbow room. The job is evolving as we speak. There is a new realization that a cemetery can be a valuable source of historic data and a treasure trove of resources, from those learning about their family tree to educators who can create unique opportunities to teach future generations. But first, many still need to reevaluate their feelings about a cemetery in the first place. Often it is thought of as a place to avoid – a place that we visit to pay respects to a deceased loved one annually, but with a touch of fear and anxiety. On stone markers we usually see a date of birth and a date of death, but there is a dash between those two dates that represents an entire person’s life. We can appreciate a lost one even more if we look at the life they lived, and not only about the event of their passing and their final resting place. As the cemetery historian, I give walking tours and help to create community programs and events, including a classical concert series. We even created a family magic show in honor of a famous magician buried on the grounds. I also joined FindaGrave.com as a photographer, and I receive requests from families to take photograph of various gravestones of relatives they’ve discovered in their family tree. Other times, I photograph random markers, all nearly a century old, and place the information on Genealogy.com, helping many find relatives for whom they had no idea where they had been buried. That is a wonderful experience to reunite families.

What brought you into this line of work?

I was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Richmond Hill, Queens. Maple Grove was the local cemetery, and I would walk through the grounds as a child. I grew up with a love of history, and as I learned more about the history of my hometown, I eventually became the town historian. I co-wrote a history of the town, and later published three other books. During those years of researching, I learned about numerous families who lived in Richmond Hill and the surrounding areas of Queens. When I walked through Maple Grove, I recognized so many names on the headstones that they felt like old friends. I realized that I knew entire life histories, and I wanted to share them. So I started to organize walking tours. Fortunately, the cemetery administration was very progressive in their thinking and provided a venue for events and programs. When they asked me to become cemetery historian, it was easy to create programs and events that honored others buried at Maple Grove.

In many ways, I can’t imagine a better historian, in that you have such a direct link to your subject matter But it leads me to wonder: with most history, the scholar works at a safe remove from his subjects. You revel in making history a living thing, which I think most historians should devote a lot more time to doing. Yet death and grieving are a much more visceral part of the cemetery historian’s landscape. What are some of the emotional or spiritual demands of your line of work?

Maple Grove Cemetery was established in 1875 and covers over sixty-five acres. Monumental Park, the Victorian section of the grounds, has burials that go as far back as 1876. Because I have mostly concentrated my research in this section, I avoid the grieving that is present in the newer sections of the cemetery. Fortunately, the cemetery staff handles these newer burials with grace and compassion. What has brought a lot of emotion to me personally is connecting long-lost relatives and bringing them back together. It is an indescribable feeling. What I also find amazing is how, after doing so much research on a family with census data and newspaper clippings, they really become like family to me. Some died over a hundred years ago! I walk down a path at Maple Grove and see so many old friends, and I nod my head in a greeting. There is an ancient Egyptian proverb carved in the wall at the cemetery center, and it states, “If you say the name of the dead, they come back to life.” In a way, that is what I do.

Did your job require special training?

There are very few cemeteries that have an official cemetery historian. As grounds fill up and there are no burials to be made, a change must occur to keep the cemetery stable and maintained. That is were a “Friends” group will be utilized. They create a spotlight around the historical importance of the cemetery and create programs and events to keep the cemetery alive and active. They can raise funds to help maintain monuments and landscaping. Maple Grove had this foresight and named me Cemetery Historian and Steward of the Archives. As this is a new field, having a history background can be very helpful. A degree in education can also be helpful.

And you are a classroom teacher, right?

Yes, I am a full-time teacher. I have been teaching for three decades. Presently, I teach social studies to fifth and sixth graders at the Immaculate Conception School in Jamaica Estates, Queens. I think the relationship between local organizations and schools is very important, and I strongly believe in the proverb, “It takes an entire village to raise a child.” I have created many projects with the students and the cemetery, and they have been so receptive. Many have learned to love history and think about historic preservation. I even have a few students who joined the cemetery “Friends” as student members. If I am a good historian, I can show how the past is important both to our generation and for future generations. The dead have stories to tell and those live on and we can learn from them. Death is not the end.