In North Carolina, final resting places aren’t always final, at least when it comes to unmarked graves in abandoned folk cemeteries that are relocated to make way for development. Over the last decade, in fact, Wake County has allowed property owners to exhume about 150 graves, including burial sites at N.C. State’s athletic complex and at the site of a planned Raleigh subdivision.
“Everybody involved shows the utmost respect,” assures Wake County planner Keith Lankford. “We want to make sure it’s done property carefully, thoroughly, and respectfully.”
Southern folk cemeteries were common in North Carolina before funerals became a commercial industry after World War II. Dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these humble cemeteries were often found on hilltops surrounded by cedar trees and privet hedges, usually with river rocks for grave markers. The history of these burial grounds and the identities of those laid to rest is often lost when the properties change hands, leaving a mystery for the archeologists and genealogists with whom developers contract to research these sites.
That’s the case with a property on New Hill Olive Chapel Road, outside Apex in southwestern Wake County, that Forsyth Investments Company LLC is set to redevelop. An archeological survey identified two weathered tombstones with no visible inscriptions covered by leaves and vegetation in an overgrown area of the property. The property’s owners, who had only lived there a few decades, had no idea who was buried on their land.
Anyone other than next of kin has to get the county government’s approval to move the remains, according to state law. The process requires public hearings, newspaper notices, and reinternment in a well-maintained cemetery. Genealogical research can attempt to find family members, but even in the best cases, that results in a phone call to distant descendants who may not have any idea their relatives owned the property, let alone were buried there.
“Most of these are abandoned cemeteries, and they are overgrown and in poor condition, so the two biggest things the county has is to try and identify next of kin and give them the opportunity to comment,” Lankford says.
At the New Hill Olive Chapel Road property, genealogist Deborah Joy was able to trace ownership back to 1816. The graveyard is referenced in deeds dating to 1897, and although only two graves were found, as many as thirteen people were buried there, according to Joy’s research. She found a few relatives, but none knew anything about the cemetery.
So last week, the developer came before the Wake County Board of Commissioners with an application to relocate the two graves. All but one commissioner—Greg Ford—signed off. Ford said that moving remains runs afoul of his religious beliefs.
“My faith tradition is one where final resting place really does mean final resting place,” Ford said. “There’s not an asterisk there [if] it impedes progress or profit.”
Commissioner Jessica Holmes said she agreed with Ford on moral grounds, but she voted for the relocation anyway, saying the graves would be better cared for in Oakwood Cemetery.
“Morally, I believe that disinterment is wrong,” she said, “but as an attorney and elected official, I respect that the guidelines have been abided by.”
With the relocation approved, a meticulous process has been set in motion, beginning with exhumation. Even in graves just a few decades old, you’re unlikely to find much in the ground due to the Piedmont’s soil conditions, says N.C. State forensic anthropologist Ann Ross. While corpses elsewhere can be preserved for hundreds or even thousands of years, this part of North Carolina has very moist, high alkaline, and acidic clay soil, which accelerates decomposition. Bones actually last longer in the sun than underground here, Ross says.
Studies have shown that bodies disappear completely in about thirty-five years, leaving only the “shadow of bone” as a faint outline in the dirt. Excavators typically find only about an inch-deep layer of discolored dirt, an outline of a casket or body, and metal coffin hinges.
This was the case in 2014, when Lankford oversaw the exhumation of thirty graves from what is now N.C. State’s indoor football training facility. Only one grave was marked: It belonged to the Reverend John W. Dalton, the pastor of a church formerly on the property, and was dated 1943. Earlier this year, the county approved the relocation of fifty-three graves from a planned Raleigh subdivision; those graves were marked only by rocks at their head and foot.
“Known only to God, as they say,” Lankford says.
Whatever’s left of the graves is placed into a small wooden box and numbered by location, so that when they’re reinterred, the families are kept together. Cremation isn’t an option under state law, but even if that weren’t the case, burning the remnants might raise complicated moral issues.
“We don’t know who these people were,” Lankford says. “We don’t know what their feelings were about cremation.”