Rapid Development May Encroach on Historic Cemeteries

Aug 06, 2021 at 10:45 am by robmtchl

A gravestone at the Vine Street Cemetery in Murfreesboro. (M. Willard)

The people who lived before us are often just beneath our feet, even if their tombs are sometimes forgotten.

Lost under urban development, they are rediscovered when a subway, building, or other structure claims the ground for progress. In 1991, construction of a federal office building revealed a colonial-era burial ground in Lower Manhattan. The graves, dating back to the 1690s, had been lost due to landfill and development, yet were identified as part of the African burial grounds that in the 17th century were located outside the old city.

Sometimes, to borrow a line from Poltergeist, people only move the headstones when relocating a cemetery, and stray bones and coffins are left behind (digging up the dead is generally unpleasant work). Sometimes, people just push them over, cover them up and pretend they were never there.

Who speaks for the dead?

Tennessee has laws in place to protect grave sites. TCA 46-2-105 indicates that it is a class E felony to disturb a grave. Unfortunately, these types of crimes go unreported and unprosecuted because, well, the dead don’t complain very much.

In Tennessee, every known burial site 1/4 of an acre or larger is issued its own parcel. That parcel is the property of those buried within it and their descendants. If it is less than ¼ of an acre, it is owned by the property owner. However, the property owner assumes perpetual care of the cemetery and may not damage or destroy any headstones or memorial markings.

Every life is precious, and every life is deserving of the dignity of a final resting place of their or their loved one's choosing. If you are curious about cemeteries and their locations, there is a map for that at Rutherford County Cemetey Map

If there's on that's not listed, let us know. If someone is destroying a burial site, speak up!

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