Arlington National Cemetery was established towards the end of the Civil War in 1864 on the grounds of Arlington House, the former home of General Robert E. Lee’s wife. Covering 624 acres of land in Virginia, the cemetery is the dedicated resting place of more than 300,000 men and women who served in the military branches of the United States of America. Every December Wreaths Across America, founded by Morrill Worcester, lays thousands of donated wreaths over the graves of Arlington National Cemetery and other cemeteries across the country where veterans are buried.
A few years ago Brent Zaprowski was walking his dog along along the borders of Parsons Cemetery that runs behind his home. Owned and operated by Saint Peters Episcopal Church in Salisbury, MD, Parsons is an operating Victorian era cemetery. Parsons has become known for blending art and nature into its grounds, inviting people to explore the history within. While Brent, a professor of Geography and Geosciences at Salisbury University, was walking his dogs he came upon some workers in the cemetery. Striking up a conversation with them, Brent learned that they were searching for the graves of veterans to participate in the annual Wreaths Across America tradition.
When Brent asked the workers how they knew where to find all the veteran’s graves, they said that they just walk around trying to find and flag as many as possible. Brent instantly realized that there had to be a better way to ensure these veterans were honored. With help from the Preservation Maryland society, the state’s oldest preservation organization, Brent enlisted his students to begin using drones to map Parsons Cemetery to create a comprehensive database of all buried within.
Parsons Cemetery stretches over 18 acres of land and has more than 13,000 graves, many of which are unmarked. Strolling through the grounds to find graves that are centuries old would not only take forever but most likely not be accurate. Using a drone Brent was able to create a visual map of the entire cemetery effortlessly. This map was then compared to historical records to find out exactly who had been laid to rest in the cemetery. Using the historical data and the map created by the drone, a comprehensive database of more than 1,000 veterans and their burial sites was compiled. “I was able to not only map out where they are, but to actually know who the veterans are,” Brent said. “Between databases online and the drone imagery, I was able to really do a good, thorough job of mapping out where all the veterans are.”
With the use of the drone, Brent and his students learned of veterans from the War of 1812, the Mexican Wars, and the Civil War. All of these veterans now have graves that are marked. Carol Smith, a member of the Parsons Advisory Committee said, “The thing with being a veteran is you’re forgotten when no one ever speaks your name again.” Now, thanks to the drone these veterans will be remembered. Their stories will be shared when people visit Parsons Cemetery for walking tours. Brent also set up social media accounts to document all the stories he was able to uncover with the drone.
Earlier this month Preservation Maryland presented Parsons Cemetery and the drone project with a Community Choice Award for 21st-century thinking. These awards are presented to those who engage in small community projects that have a big impact, such as a drone that has brought to light the histories of hundreds of unknown veterans, helping to preserve their legacies. This was an undertaking that most likely would not have happened if it weren’t for the modern conveniences of drones. As stated in a Parsons Cemetery press release on the project, “At Parsons, everything old is new again.”