A few months after leaving office in 1849, President James K. Polk died at the Nashville mansion that he called Polk Place. Because the 11th president came down with a lethal bout of cholera, his body was buried for a year in a mass grave in the Nashville City Cemetery, in adherence to laws meant to prevent infectious diseases spreading from corpses.
The cemetery was the first of Polk’s “final” resting places. The saga of his remains, more than 150 years later, continues still. On Monday the Tennessee Senate passed a resolution to once again relocate his grave.
But it would be premature for diggers to ready their shovels. The state’s House of Representatives, the Davidson County Chancery Court and the Tennessee Historical Commission must also approve the resolution.
And if Polk goes to his fourth grave, it will not be quietly. A few of his descendants have decried the move as a poor way to honor the president.
“Every step they take is one step toward grave robbery,” Teresa Elam, 65, Polk’s niece by way of seven generations, told the Tennessean. “It would be like taking someone out of Arlington and taking them to the family farm and putting them behind the barn.”
After first being buried for a year in the city cemetery, the president’s relatives moved his body to the Polk Place grounds, in keeping with the will he wrote before he died. Despite that will, the Polk family sold that land in 1893 after a legal battle. The bodies of Polk and his wife, Sarah Childress Polk, were then moved to the grounds of the Tennessee capitol.
He has rested in that spot for more than a century. The Senate’s resolution would allow for the Polks’ bodies to be exhumed and relocated to 45 minutes away to his former residence in Columbia, Tenn., where the president spent part of his childhood and the James K. Polk Home and Museum is located.
“We are doing our best to preserve and interpret the legacy of James K. Polk, because that’s what he would have wanted in his will,” curator Tom Price told the Tennessean.
But Elam — Polk’s distant relative — considers the move a moneymaking ploy to drive tourists to Columbia, the New York Times reported.
Price disputed that the move was meant to drum up more sales of the $10 admission tickets. “We’ve been open since 1929,” Price told CBS News. “If this were merely a matter of money we probably would have done it 50 years ago.”
Joey Hensley, a Republican state senator who represents the county where the museum is located, sponsored the bill to move Polk. He said Polk’s current burial place is tucked away in a corner of the capitol grounds, a disservice to the president, in his view.
“I think I have been here 14 years and really didn’t know, had never visited James K. Polk’s tomb,” Hensley told the Associated Press.
Jeff Yarbro, a Democratic state senator for Nashville, told CBS that he would prefer legislators to tread lightly around presidential corpses.
“There are only 45 people who’ve been president of the United States,” he said, “and if a few years from now there’s a crew with shovels in the front yard of the capitol, it’s going to be a national news story, and there’s going to be a lot of appropriate scrutiny on how this process got initiated.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the historical organization that must approve the resolution. It is the Tennessee Historical Commission, not the Tennessee Historical Society.
More from Morning Mix