Lena Hakim

Planning on dying anytime soon? Well, you should be, because it’s the one thing in this world that is guaranteed to happen for you. And if you plan to stay here in New Mexico, your remains may become a permanent landmark within the Land of Enchantment. Before you go six feet under, there are a few things to learn about those who have preceded you, because as unique as our state may be, so too is the history of the burial sites of New Mexicans. Just because you are buried in a legitimate cemetery may not mean you will be protected for an eternity. Many of our residences beneath the surface are now neglected and threatened, as is the preservation of their sacred sites and historical contributions that makes New Mexico so special.

Just like our state, burial in New Mexico is unique. Natural or “green” burial has always been practiced here: no embalming, natural coffins, and natural cloth materials. The tombstones used are mostly wood crosses or wood markers. The Pueblo people hold a belief that as the wood cross disintegrates it should not be repaired or replaced, but rather noted as a time marker to move on emotionally, though the cemetery and burial spot remains sacred. The Pueblo of Taos, for instance, collects the disintegrated crosses and places them on the edge of the cemetery. In Hispanic traditions, markers are usually more permanent and families will replace and repair crosses. New Mexico is a land where colonialism has displaced almost everyone at some time in history, and economic changes have further forced communities to leave their ancestors unattended. Thus, the Pueblo people have thousands of burial sites throughout New Mexico where the village was abandoned and the graveyard is no longer known, except possibly through verbal legends. The many Hispanic ghost towns have cemeteries that have been neglected, sometimes only identified by scattered pieces of wood in an open space of disintegrating adobe walls. Even the city of Santa Fe has several old cemeteries that are no longer used, and thus no longer maintained. These sites are fenced off and forgotten, unless you look twice at the unusual open space.

Historically, burial sites located within communities are maintained by the community itself, often through a volunteer position, rather than by a company or the county. Villages like La Bajada, with fewer than 50 residences and a fabulous old graveyard, that may date back to the 1600s, depends on the kind, keen eyes of locals to make sure no suspicious trespassing occurs. Ancient Pueblo burial sites are further neglected, as they often are located in areas where there are no roads or residences. When I was in high school (back in the ‘80s) I recall hiking in an area west of Albuquerque on BLM land known as “Shark’s Tooth” for the innumerable number of shark teeth fossils scattered along the mesa. There I found the ancient bones of a woman; her barely visible outline had been buried in the fetal position with broken pottery sherds surrounding her. I had stumbled upon a sacred native burial site, and the wind had, over time, exposed her. When I returned to the area two years later, she was gone, as were all the sherds. Her missing bones deeply moved me to become concerned about New Mexico’s precious history. Though I reported the location to the BLM, I don’t know if the area was ever documented or protected.

The countless number of unmarked burial sites and unmaintained community graveyards within the state has led to a state protection law known as The New Mexico Cultural Properties Act, Unmarked Burial Statute, 18-6-11.2, of 1989. It states, “Any person who discovers a human burial in any unmarked burial ground shall cease any activity that may disturb that burial or any object or artifact associated with that burial and shall notify the local law enforcement agency having jurisdiction in the area.” Here an unmarked burial is defined as, “…a human body or skeletal remains and includes any funeral object, material object, or artifact buried, entombed, or sepulchered with that human body or skeletal remains.” It is a felony in New Mexico to dig up or take objects from any graveyard. Remember this as you hike in the desert and stumble upon pottery sherds in a distinct area. You may be walking over New Mexico’s unprotected dead.

In an effort to document and preserve burial sites the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance created the New Mexico Endangered Burial Places society, whose goal is to assist the State Archeologist Office in registering unmarked cemeteries and document any information known about the residence beneath. Further, this organization helps document theft and looting within cemeteries. As shocking as it may seem, the crosses, pottery and santos on the fire mantels of million-dollar Santa Fe homes may have been looted from New Mexico church ruins and burial grounds. Though looting was more common at the beginning of the last century, it continues to happen despite the felony tag. The cultural antiquity black market is the third largest in the world, and as the economy worsens, so too does the temptation to find sellable treasures. Unfortunately, Native and Hispanic treasures from New Mexico remain a commodity for these markets.

According to the New Mexico Endangered Burial Places society, New Mexico is behind in reporting burial locations. Ancient burial sites located on private land are often not documented, though state law says burial sites are owned by the decedents of the dead, not the owners of the land, including anything buried with the bodies, and it is mandatory to report the location. Also, just because an old graveyard may have a fence around it, this does not mean it has been reported to the state. The New Mexico Endangered Burial Places society is asking New Mexicans to protect our unprotected dead by getting involved in the reporting process.

In an effort to enroll stewards of the dead, SiteWatch, a division of the state’s Department of Cultural Affairs Historic Preservation Society, was initiated. They train volunteers in documenting and reporting on behalf of the state. Volunteers receive five hours of classroom orientation and three hours of field orientation, and are issued an “interim ID card” by the Historic Preservation Division. SiteWatch volunteers become state “watchdogs” and report on archeological sites, historic buildings and other cultural resources.

For more information about the unprotected dead of New Mexico and to get involved in this worthy effort, consider visiting the following websites:

NM SiteWatch: http://www.nmhistoricpreservation.org/PROGRAMS/sitewatch.html

Cemetery Conservation: http://ncptt.nps.gov/

NM State Statues: www.conwaygreene.com/NewMexico.htm

Lena Hakim is an environmental scientist and resident of Santa Fe. She has a passion for environmental planning and her state of New Mexico. lenahakim@yahoo.com