When Hallowed Ground Is at Risk

For some places, the peril is neglect, while for others, it is development

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The Antietam Civil War battlefield is in a historic area facing suburban sprawl and proposed electricity transmission lines.

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Corrected on 11/29/07: An earlier version referred to 23,000 deaths at the Civil War Battle of Antietam. That figure actually includes the dead, wounded, captured and missing. About 3,600 died at Antietam.

Whole Foods Market prides itself on its commitment to sustainable agriculture and community-building. But when it tried to build its first store in Hawaii, the gourmet natural-food grocer unwittingly ran into protests. The problem was that when the developer broke ground in the downtown Honolulu project last year, construction crews unearthed an old native Hawaiian burial site with at least 64 sets of remains. Work has been delayed for months by court battles, and the broader project may have to be redesigned.

Even a well-intentioned company like Whole Foods can find itself caught up in a dilemma that seems increasingly problematic—the tension between the drive for development and the growing urge to protect endangered sacred places. In recent years, the preservation forces have become more vocal, more organized, and, in some cases, better funded. But the sheer scope of the spiritual places vulnerable—whether to development or neglect—is intimidating. "We have to practice triage," says Bob Jaeger, who runs Partners for Sacred Spaces, a nonprofit that works to protect the nation's churches and synagogues. "We can't help them all."

For the past two decades, the National Trust for Historic Preservation each year has highlighted what it considers America's 11 most endangered historic places. These range from urban historic districts to cultural landmarks, but many have a strong sacred identity—American Indian burial grounds, southern black churches, Boston's old Catholic churches, even petroglyphs in New Mexico.

This year, the group chose a 175-mile corridor from Pennsylvania to Virginia. Dubbed the "journey through hallowed ground," the swath comprises, among other things, the nation's highest concentration of Civil War battlefields. These sites, which include Antietam and Gettysburg, have obvious historical significance, and they remain hallowed ground for many. One night a year at Antietam National Battlefield Park, for instance, volunteers light 23,000 luminarias, one for each casualty (killed, wounded, or missing) on the bloodiest single day of the war.

Today, however, the corridor is facing sustained pressure from suburban sprawl, overdevelopment, and even a planned high-voltage transmission line to bolster the nation's fragile electricity grid. As in most of these cases, there are no clear right-or-wrong answers but, rather, competing visions of the trade-offs. Such disputes are nothing new, of course. In 1823, the city of New York banned all burials in the city's private urban cemeteries, citing hygiene concerns. This effectively cut off a key revenue stream for the maintenance of these cemeteries, prompting Brick Presbyterian Church to sue the city. The church lost, but in his ruling, municipal court Judge John Irving admitted, "I am aware that it is an ungracious task to mar those feelings which cling to the remembrance of those who were dear to us in life."

High-rise housing. The debates get even more complicated when the issues are, in effect, global. For instance, Mecca, Islam's holiest city, is facing its own issues with overdevelopment. With some 3 million pilgrims a year taking part in the annual hajj, Saudi Arabia is funding large housing projects. But the result is that a complex of seven high-rise glass-and-marble apartment towers will soon dwarf the nearby Great Mosque that contains the Kaaba, the cubelike shrine revered by Muslims around the world.

The flip side of the development issue is that of sacred spaces threatened by neglect. Cemeteries that are not being maintained, for example, quickly deteriorate and often fall prey to weather and vandals. Careless lawnmowers can run over tomb markers. Harsh weed killers can damage the stones. "Cemeteries suffer frequently because they don't have a particularly loud constituency," says Michael Trinkley, an anthropologist who runs the Chicora Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in preservation of cemeteries. "But people were buried there with the expectation of eternal rest and that is one of our responsibilities as a society."