When Glenda Schroeder decided to take a walk in the woods while her husband fished near Haletown, she had no idea she would find a forgotten cemetery and the fuel for a 20-year passion.
Picking her way through briars and underbrush about two decades ago, she stumbled on five abandoned and broken crypts dating from 1848 to 1931.
All that marked most of the graves were depressions in the earth left by time and grave robbers. A fence that once separated the periwinkle-covered resting places from their forest surroundings lay now in snared clumps. The wide, rusting gate stood like a lone, leaning sentry.
As she looked about, a large rat burst from a hole beneath the oldest tomb — that of John Graham, “born February 28, 1793, died August 28, 1848.”
“If I had the money, I’d put a 6-foot fence around these graves right here with barbed wire on the top of it and lock it down,” she said. “I mean it’s not going to be here much longer. You can see by looking at it.”
The maintenance and protection of millions of graves in thousands of cemeteries in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama are left to many church, family and neighborhood groups, even individuals such as Mrs. Schroeder.
Officials with all three states last week said they have no way to know how many forgotten, abandoned or unregistered cemeteries exist across the region.
Tennessee has only 189 registered cemeteries, but the U.S. Geological Survey has mapped 12,485 cemeteries in the state and 172 in Hamilton County alone.
Tennessee has 189 registered cemeteries, but the U.S. Geological Survey has mapped thousands more.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey
Registered cemeteries are those for which established perpetual care funds are required to be monitored by the state’s Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers/Burial Services, said Kelly Brockman, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.
“Burial Services only regulates for-profit cemeteries,” she said. “Burial Services does not regulate family cemeteries, church or religious cemeteries, (or) cemeteries owned by municipalities such as cities or counties.”
Georgia and Alabama cemetery laws and rules are similar to Tennessee’s.
Georgia regulates 211 for-profit, perpetual care cemeteries, according to secretary of state spokesman Matt Carrothers.
Alabama regulates 150, said Steve Holmes, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Insurance.
Tennessee’s Adrian Chick, staff attorney for the Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers/Burial Services, said getting cemetery owners to meet their trust fund for perpetual care requirements is a big issue even for the few registered cemeteries.
“That’s a big challenge that we have: making sure the cemeteries put an amount in trust that’s enough to cover their obligations at the time of need,” he said.
The state has several different kinds of trust funds, he said. There are improvement care trust funds and merchandise trust funds for caskets and vaults.
For the remaining thousands of old cemeteries, states laws offer little help for anything shy of grave robbing, officials said.
Chapel Hill Cemetery in Dunlap, Tenn., is one of the lucky ones.
Situated on a Sequatchie Valley hill beside an old and picturesque church, the old but still-active cemetery is immaculate.
Tom Tucker, pastor of Chapel Hill United Methodist Church, said the third Sunday of every May is Decoration Day at the 156-year-old cemetery. The day is special for both the church and the cemetery.
“We have an opportunity as a church family to talk about those we’ve known — to remember family and friends who’ve had such a wonderful impact on our lives,” Mr. Tucker said.
“It’s also significant in that it helps us as a church maintain the cemetery,” he said. “It’s a time of fundraising, and we always seem to do very well that way.”
This year, as in the past, church members shared their special day with visitors.
“We’re from all over the country,” said Cameron Gordon Peck, of her cousins and aunt who planned for a year to attend the cemetery’s special day on May 18.
Ms. Peck, from Greensboro, N.C.; her aunt Willi Jim Plattner, of Dallas; her cousin, Philip Plattner, of Seattle; cousin, Marti Davis, of Traverse City, Mich., and cousin, Steve Gordon, from Philadelphia, converged to visit the area and the cemetery and to do some genealogy work.
“We came to honor our heritage,” said Ms. Davis, whose great-grandparents are buried at Chapel Hill.
Staff Photo by Angela Lewis -- Joyce Layne places flowers on the graves of family members during Decoration Day at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church and Cemetery on Sunday.
Joann Davis, of Harrison, didn’t have to come so far, and her connections are more recent. A Mabry by birth, she said her parents, her grandparents, aunts and uncles, her husband and a son are buried there.
“I grew up just down the road here, and all of our family is buried here,” she said.
Dan Ewton, owner and operator of Ewton Funeral Home in Dunlap, has brought many to the valley resting place, but he worries that when the next generation passes, upkeep at Chapel Hill might become tougher.
“The young generation is not donating for upkeep like the older people did. Used to, people would have a day and bring tools and bring dinner and clean up the cemetery. We still have the dinner, but now people donate money to hire somebody else to do it,” he said.
“It’s just a dying breed. The younger people don’t even go to the Decoration unless they have to. They don’t understand,” he said.
The emerging interest in family histories may be the best friend of many old cemeteries.
RESOURCES ON CEMETERIES
Glenda Schroeder’s cemetery page: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~tnsequat/cemeteries.html
Hamilton County Genealogical Society: http://www.hctgs.org/default.htm
When cemeteries are discovered or disturbed by construction: http://tn.gov/environment/arch/pdf/historiccemeteries.pdf
A genealogy “Endangered Cemeteries in Tennessee” Web site: http://members.aol.com/genny1/CEM/new.htm
Links for cemetery history and preservation: http://www.potifos.com/cemeteries.html#preservation
A genealogist’s overview of Tennessee burial law: http://www.tngenweb.org/law/cemetery-law.html
Tennessee tombstone transcription project: http://www.rootsweb.com/~cemetery/tennessee/tenn.html
The Association for Gravestone Studies: http://www.gravestonestudies.org
Tennessee Board Of Funeral Directors And Embalmers/Burial Services: http://tennessee.gov/commerce/boards/funeral
Georgia Secretary of State Securities and Business Regulation: http://www.sos.ga.gov/securities
Alabama Department of Insurance Preneed information http://www.aldoi.org/Preneed/
Jim Holcomb with the Hamilton County Genealogical Society chronicles the gravestones in old cemeteries. He said he learned early in his own family history search that if he didn’t write down all the names on all the stones in the cemetery, he’d soon have to come back as he learned more names in his family tree.
As he and other family history buffs began to confer, they realized they could help each other by recording on the Internet what they had collected.
Like Mrs. Schroeder, he is concerned about what he sees.
“A lot of these old cemeteries are on private property. If the commercial cemeteries are having a hard time paying for upkeep with trust funds, can you imagine what’s happening to the others?” he said.
That’s exactly what struck Mrs. Schroeder in Marion County when the spirit of the peaceful but forgotten cemetery by the river spoke to her.
Given up for adoption as a child, she said she still longed to connect with the family she’d never known. The lost river cemetery, too, needed a connection to family. So she adopted it.
“I do not have access to tracing my personal family tree, so I do this to help others,” she said of the future 47 cemeteries she would visit, journal and record on an Internet page she maintains.
But she never let go of the Grahams. Over the next two decades she would make countless phone calls and courthouse visits to learn about John Graham and his family, and to find the owners of the cemetery. She wanted — and still wants — to force better care for the graveyard.
But lasting care has been elusive.
Despite many calls and e-mails to the landowner — the Tennessee Valley Authority — she’s had little luck making any other protection available to the late Grahams for their final resting place.
TVA workers once came out and replaced the top on one crypt and cleared some underbrush, she said. But now, even more exposed with the underbrush gone, the tombs have invited another round of vandals’ assaults.
The crypt lids have been pushed aside and holes gape into the graves where robbers or animals have burrowed.
TVA spokesman Jim Allen said TVA does not provide maintenance services for cemeteries on agency land, but would “facilitate” partnerships with volunteer preservation groups. He also said TVA patrols its land regularly. He urged anyone seeing vandalism on agency land to report it to TVA police.
“TVA values all resources on its public land, including cemeteries,” he said.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...