More Family Cemeteries Dying Away in the South

A tiny, overgrown family cemetery sits in the middle of the Nashville Auto Auction parking lot in Mount Juliet, Tenn., and is an example of what can happen when development overtakes burial sites. In Tennessee alone, dozens of long-hidden cemeteries appear each year, causing grief for builders and relatives.
A tiny, overgrown family cemetery sits in the middle of the Nashville Auto Auction parking lot in Mount Juliet, Tenn., and is an example of what can happen when development overtakes burial sites. In Tennessee alone, dozens of long-hidden cemeteries appear each year, causing grief for builders and relatives. (Photos By Josh Anderson For The Washington Post)

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By Theo Emery
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 27, 2006

LEBANON, Tenn. -- At the end of Bettis Road, across a padlocked gate and up a grassy hillside lane, generations of James Jordan's ancestors lie buried atop a wooded knoll -- for now.

A rusty fence encircles the cemetery, and tilted headstones point skyward amid the leaves. Walking among the locust trees, Jordan points out graves of long-dead kin, including the Chandler family matriarch who left instructions and money for preserving the cemetery.

"It's a shame," said Jordan, 51. "She died thinking that she had preserved the cemetery."

The hilltop, about 25 miles east of Nashville, won't be Jordan's ancestral resting place much longer. Green flags mark the Chandler cemetery, which includes graves of Revolutionary and Civil War veterans, slaves and generations of a sprawling Colonial family. They will soon be moved so that a factory or warehouse -- the developer is not yet sure -- can be built nearby.

Throughout the South, family cemeteries pepper the landscape. But as cities from Atlanta to Memphis radiate rapidly outward, the growth is swallowing rural land that swaddles the graves.

In Tennessee alone, dozens of long-hidden cemeteries appear each year -- sometimes in mid-construction -- creating headaches for builders and heartaches for families of the dead. Some cemeteries are moved at landowners' expense. Those that stay sometimes become forlorn islands of green amid parking lots and suburban developments. Others are paved over or bulldozed.

The conflict between growth and graves in the region has long been cause for concern among preservationists, who worry that development endangers a cultural heritage buried in the soil and chiseled in its headstones.

Ian W. Brown, an anthropology professor at the University of Alabama, described family cemeteries as "outdoor museums" that are threatened throughout the South.

"A lot of the land has been sold, abandoned, come under forest, things like that," he said. "People are concerned with them in a general fashion, but unless it's your family, no one's tending them."

In Tennessee, as in other Southern states, farm families in centuries past tended to bury their dead on their own land, allowing for quick interment and easy oversight of graves. In the Northeast, by contrast, families were more likely to use public burial grounds and church cemeteries.

"The Southern pattern was that every farm or plantation would have their family cemetery," said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

Over the years, many families dispersed, undergrowth overtook the headstones and deeds changed hands. Some cemeteries -- particularly those where black families buried their kin -- used fieldstones as markers and are difficult to spot.


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