‘Honor Your DNA’ looks to restore cemeteries
By CJ HADDAD
Too many cemeteries across Lee County and the country are being neglected and unkept.
Trae Zipperer wants to change that.
The local real estate agent has created a movement, Honor Your DNA, to help restore area burial grounds to preserve the memories of those laid to rest there.
Zipperer was inspired to get to work after looking into his own family tree.
“I started researching my family tree about two-and-a-half years ago, and that led me to wonder where these ancestors were buried,” he said. “I discovered what was happening in cemeteries – the plight of cemeteries – which is, we’ve forgotten about our ancestors, and there’s no safety net for (them).”
Honor Your DNA is aimed at restoring cemeteries around Lee County back to welcome and respectable places where family members and loved ones can visit those they have lost.
Zipperer has seen first hand how cemeteries and burial grounds have been overrun with vegetation and lack of maintenance, and said that’s no way to honor the ancestry of this country that connects us all more than we think.
“It’s a sobering experience to find a cemetery that’s turned back into a forest,” Zipperer said. “I’ve been to them – literally a thick forest. I found the headstones, I found 40 years of leaves and twigs burying grave sites. I raked the leaves back, about a foot thick of leaves, to find out there’s a beautiful grave site there, but it’s just getting buried.
“Vandals get inside, they start kicking things around. What they’re doing is destroying American history, where once you remove that headstone — you move it to another spot – you never know where exactly (that person) is buried.”
Headstone restoration is also part of Zipperer’s quest, as they deteriorate and can become unreadable over time.
“Gravestones don’t last forever, they all erode like everything else on planet Earth,” he said. “Today we can read that headstone. If we don’t take care of these things ,we won’t be able to read them, and it’s really sad when you go to cemeteries and you see stones that you can no longer read, and you think, ‘Gosh, if somebody would’ve just taken care of that.'”
Zipperer said there are potentially millions of graves across the country that have been forgotten, along with the memories of those buried there.
“Unfortunately, we’ve lost millions of graves in America already,” Zipperer said. “They get bulldozed, they get turned back into forests, they get plowed — we’re just trying to save what we’ve got. If we start now, 100 years from now, the next generations will have what we have today, which is a real blessing to be able to find your ancestor and be able to study their history and the context of the world that they lived in.”
First on the list is New Prospect Cemetery in North Fort Myers, the forever home to just about 90 people, including veterans that date back to the Civil War.
The grounds have been maintained via monthly mowing, but trees and shrubs have begun to take over some areas of the land. Zipperer, along with labor donation from Tim’s Tree Service, and a clean up project slated for Nov. 9, will have New Prospect looking in tip-top condition.
Zipperer will also be adding a new flag pole, along with a large metal entranceway, or signage, to the cemetery.
“He (Zipperer) contacted me and said that this was a passion of his – to help with old family cemeteries,” said Naida Stebbins, New Prospect’s sole caretaker, whose great-great-grandfather was John Powell, an early pioneer of what is now North Fort Myers and is buried at New Prospect. “I agreed to let him do whatever he could do down here, because we need all the help we can get.”
Stebbins said this initiative by Zipperer is needed across the county for sites similar to New Prospect who may not be receiving all of the help -physically and financially – needed.
“There’s cemeteries that are just totally abandoned, practically,” she said. “You don’t even know they’re there anymore. And I don’t want to see that happen here.”
Zipperer hopes to expand Honor Your DNA nationwide after taking care of the 19 Lee County cemeteries he feels need a boost.
How does he plan to raise the money? Crowd funding and the hope that residents in Southwest Florida and beyond feel the same way he does about preserving history.
“If I can raise awareness to everyone in America that these cemeteries exist, and your ancestors are buried in these places, maybe people will reach in their pocket,” Zipperer said. “It applies to everyone. When you discover your ancestors are everywhere, and you find the condition of their graves, I don’t want my grandma resting in a grave like that.
“The cost is about one to five cents per grave, per person. It’s so minuscule, but everyone has to participate. It takes a small amount to make these places respected.”
Thus far, Honor Your DNA has raised just over $3,000, with all of the funding allocated to New Prospect. Zipperer hopes when people see what he can do for a site, people will continue to support his effort. His goal is to raise $316,000 for the cemeteries he has targeted in Lee.
“We’re just trying to do the best we can with what we’ve been blessed with so far,” he said. “I’m hoping that this is the primer for the pump that will encourage people to become aware and step up and help us take care of these cemeteries. We don’t have enough money to do No. 2, so we’re hoping the money will flow in that we can take care of the other 19 cemeteries in need in Lee County.”
On Nov. 9, starting at 9 a.m. until noon, volunteers can come out to place flowers on every grave and clean up headstones and the surrounding area of the cemetery. Flags will also be placed on veteran headstones in prelude to Veterans Day the following Monday.
“My vision is, that when the sun comes up on the morning of the 11th for Veteran’s Day, this place is going to look fabulous,” Zipperer said. “We want to make this the example of what every cemetery should look like.”
For more information and to donate, visit www.HonorYourDNA.com.
To contribute to his GoFundMe, visit www.gofundme.com/f/honor-your-dna-by-funding-cemeteries-lee-county.
One hundred percent of proceeds raised will go towards cemetery restoration, he said.
You can also donate on Facebook by searching Honor Your DNA.
New Prospect Cemetery is at 4991 Bayline Drive in North Fort Myers.
Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj