Two separate incidents of vandalism in church graveyards in Delaware and Alaska call into question how we as a society protect the resting places of deceased against violence.
In Sitka, Alaska, a third act of vandalism in recent weeks was perpetrated against a 200 year-old Russian Orthodox and Native cemetery in late October. Vandals toppled heavy marble headstones, bringing the total of severely damaged to ten since the attacks first occurred September 13th, despite efforts by caretakers to increase cemetery security.
Meanwhile in Calyton, Delaware an African-American Episcopal Church was also vandalized over Halloween weekend. Unlike the incident in Alaska however, this vandalism appears to have resulted a far more sinister motive. Headstones and signs at Foreman-Massey Cemetery, operated by the historic Byrd's AAE church, were defaced with vulgarities and swastikas, in addition to physical damage to several grave-markers. Although no suspects have been identified at this time, Delaware police are investigating the vandalism as a hate crime.
Shakira Logan, a congregant at the church, told the Delaware News Journal that they "consider it to be a hate crime being that we are an African American church and there is a swastika and other hateful messages."
This is not the first time the church has been targeted. A year prior, a sign outside of the church proper was defaced with a swastika and "racially charged messages" in permanent marker. The AAE was also the target of Dylann Roofs terroristic mass-murder of nine members of a bible study in Charleston, South Carolina early this year.
In both of these stories, the crimes appear to have provoked a strong backlash from local communities. A police officer in Sitka described the crime as "disheartening" and "so disturbing." There is no doubt that it is especially demoralizing that the attacks have continued despite repeated attempts to respond to the prior incidents and increased security measures, the attacks have continued.
In Delaware, where the already disturbing crime is combined with the irrational hatred of racism and bigotry, the wounds to the congregation and community are that much deeper. Despite prior acts of vandalism, the attack on the "sacred ground" of the cemetery reaches a new level of malice, according to Bernard H. Williams Sr., head trustee at the church.
Although both Delaware and Alaska have laws criminalizing their desecration, cemeteries are typically unguarded areas and free from the eyes of any causal passerby, particularly at night. This low level of security however is not representative of the significance of cemeteries and graveyards to local communities. The mere fact that desecration is a crime in its own right outside of generally vandalism laws speaks to the importance society places on the protection of the resting places of the dead. When the vandalism is imbued with the corrosive malice of racism, cemetery desecration is not merely an attack on monuments, or even the dead - it is an assault on the community as a whole.
One may ask why cemetery desecration strikes this particular chord in our modern society, which has in many ways moved past a reverence of the past. Bob Sam, the Tinglit caretaker who has watched over the Sitka cemetery for over three decades, can answer that question better than I ever could.
"I think there's a lot of anger. It's a cemetery, and it's violence toward the helpless."