Annie E. Wroten is about to be buried at sea, almost 104 years after she was laid to rest in a red brick vault in a little cemetery on the Eastern Shore.
Slowly, but surely, Bay water levels are rising, apparently accelerated by climate change. As it eats away at tracts of land on Hooper’s Island and other low-lying areas, the Bay is engulfing a number of old grave sites such as that of Wroten, who died in July 1903.
“This is ready to topple over, take the grave with it. Same with this grave,’’ Donny Willey, a local preservationist, said as she walked along a row of headstones at the edge of the cemetery. “One, two, three, four, five of them, getting ready to fall over the bank.”
Globally, sea levels are expected to creep up 7–23 inches before 2100 because of an excess of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming, according to a Feb. 2 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In the mid-Atlantic region, the problem is compounded because the land is sinking, a geologic hangover from the last ice age. Scientists say sea levels in the region may rise 4–6 inches more than the global average.
To the outrage and sorrow of historians and surviving relatives, the rising water is evicting the dead, leaving bones and coffin handles as flotsam. Some graveyards were built close to the shore because that is where settlers lived. Others started out farther inland, in churchyards or farm plots, but erosion has brought the waterfront to them.
“There’s quite a bit of history being lost, almost as we speak, because of the waves,” said Court Stevenson, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, who studies the Bay’s geography.
In some cases, graves are destroyed from below. Rising groundwater destroys vaults and kills cemetery trees, which topple and expose graves. In most cases though, they are threatened by the Bay itself. As water rises, waves and storms cause more shore erosion, exposing sites that were once solid ground.
“Sea level rise is the enabler, but storms are the action,” said Bruce Douglas, a researcher at Florida International University.
Affected cemeteries can be found around the Bay and its tributaries. Near Kilmarnock, at the tip of Virginia’s Northern Neck, an ossuary, or Indian burial pit, was uncovered in an eroding bluff. It disappeared after a pair of big storms passed in November.
In Jenkins Neck, VA, the York River has cut into a site that includes a 19th century cemetery and Indian burials dating back more than 1,000 years. A grave believed to hold Joseph Smith, who died in the 1930s, is about two 2 from the bank. “Every high tide, it erodes,” said John Owens, a neighbor who helps take care of the plot. “Within six more months of this year, it will be in the river.”