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More Family Cemeteries Dying Away in the South
As Rural Land is Developed, Ancestral Graves are Relocated, Bulldozed or Encircled by Construction

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.

State archaeologist Nick Fielder estimates that there are 20,000 family cemeteries in Tennessee, but there's no way to know for sure. There's no central inventory, and most documentation is done by historians and volunteers who scour records and trudge through meadows in search of graves.

Fielder says about 100 family cemeteries fall in the path of development in Tennessee each year, about two times as many as a decade ago. Under state law, he said, there's nothing sacred about sites. Relatives of the deceased have no legal leverage over family plots they don't own, and landowners who can pay to move a cemetery need only a judge's approval.

"You get to rest in peace -- unless someone wants to do something where you rest," he said.

From the Chandler cemetery hillside, the future isn't far. Traffic rumbles past on Highway 109. Shoemaker Genesco Inc. has a distribution center up the road, and Dell assembles computers at a factory a few miles away.

The relocation to a spot near the property line is moving forward despite the plans that Jordan's great-great-great grandmother left in her will for the cemetery. The family has no choice, because a deed that left the cemetery land to Chandler descendants was lost, as was family control over the plots.

Tom White, a lawyer who represents the landowner, said the move will put the graves closer to the road and away from what probably will be a large building in the middle of the property.

"I don't know how you could do it much more ideally than this," he said.

In nearby Mount Juliet is an example of what can happen when development overtakes cemeteries. At Nashville Auto Auction, a chain-link fence encircles thousands of cars and trucks on a 265-acre lot. Behind another fence and surrounded by a sea of asphalt is a low hill with a tiny family cemetery on top, nearly buried under tree limbs and oak leaves.

There are other examples. North of Nashville, a cemetery is tucked in a highway cloverleaf. There's a family cemetery on the grounds of the city zoo. One family cemetery south of Nashville is on the grounds of a hotel, next to a parking lot.

Today, local history buffs often keep an eye on cemeteries. After a Whites Creek resident e-mailed about one, Fielder headed north on a recent afternoon. Just past the post office, he drove over a partly bulldozed field and stopped beside a mound set off with markers.

On top were two tilted headstones and two more that were flat on the ground. The graves lay on a lot line of the 26-unit subdivision, which was mapped out on a billboard for passing motorists.

Fielder took a long metal rod out of his truck and began plunging it into the ground. He muttered "yup, yup" as the rod sank easily into the earth, indicating that there probably were graves outside of the staked area.

A pickup truck pulled off the road, and David Martin -- the man who had e-mailed Fielder about the graves -- got out. Martin, 47, said he drew attention to the cemetery because he was eager for it to be taken care of.

"I think it's important that we honor these people. This is their final resting place, and just because someone wants to put a house or a bridge or a shopping center on top of it doesn't mean that you have the right to do that," Martin said.

Richard Binkley, who's building the subdivision, said he feels responsible for the dead on the property, but is torn about what to do. He bought and sold another property that had graves on it, and said he thinks his own family's cemetery was damaged by a careless developer.

"It's hard to buy a piece of property now that's on the outskirts of town that doesn't have a grave on it of some kind," he said. "It's come down to the point now where we're running out of space."

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