Housing project raises graves concern

tgrubb@newsobserver.comDecember 24, 2013 

  • Chapel Hill public cemeteries

    The town of Chapel Hill maintains four public cemeteries:

    • Barbee-Hargraves Cemetery, on Greenwood Road, covers 0.25 acres and was used to bury slaves who worked on a nearby plantation. Playwright Paul Green gave the cemetery to the town when he developed the Greenwood neighborhood.

    • Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery, between U.S. 15-501 and Legion Road, is still selling burial plots

    • Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, on the UNC campus at the corner of Country Club and South roads, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The earliest gravestone was laid in 1798 for a university student. Burial plots may still be available from private owners.

    • Jay Street Cemetery, or the West Chapel Hill Cemetery, near Village Drive and Jay Street is adjacent to the Village West neighborhood. The town is researching where people are buried, and a committee has suggested selling unused plots in the future.

— A town advisory board wants to know where Chapel Hill will bury its dead if an affordable housing project is built on Legion Road.

The Town Council agreed in November to sell the town’s roughly 10 undeveloped acres on Legion Road, beside the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery. Raleigh nonprofit housing agency DHIC Inc. would pay $100 for the land and seek a state grant to help build affordable senior and family housing.

Steve Moore, a member of the town’s Cemeteries Advisory Board, said that land was supposed to be for the cemetery’s future expansion. It potentially could have provided thousands of graves, but without it, the town only has about two years’ worth of land left, he said.

“Nobody is opposing affordable housing, but something else must be done,” Moore said. “It needs to be thought about, it needs some attention, but I don’t know what that should be.”

The five-member advisory board weighs in on cemetery operations and maintenance. On Dec. 11, the board discussed the housing project. Moore emailed its recommendations to the Town Council last week, including the possibility of a future columbarium/mausoleum.

The town maintains Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery and three others: West Chapel Hill Cemetery, Old Chapel Hill Cemetery and Barbee-Hargraves Cemetery. Memorial Cemetery is the only one with public space available, although plots in the Old Cemetery are sometimes available via private sales.

There’s also one privately run cemetery – Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens – on N.C. 86 north of town.

Steve Vining, senior vice president with Landquest Legacy Memorial Gardens, said Chapel Hill Memorial covers about 10 acres and has more than 2,000 burial plots currently available.

No obligation

Town-owned graves must be maintained, but there’s no obligation to provide residents with burial space, Town Manager Roger Stancil said. The Town Council authorized staff last year to look into selling off the undeveloped portion of the land to raise money for other town needs, he said.

If the housing project is built, the town should hire a cemetery expert to design a columbarium/mausoleum divider on Memorial Cemetery’s western property line, the advisory board said. Alternatively, the town could replace a brick plaza with a shorter columbarium/mausoleum wall, Moore said.

The town could pay for the plans with $18,000 in cemetery funds and sell columbarium/mausoleum space to pay for its construction, the board said.

“There probably could be space available at the cemetery now to construct those facilities and not be detrimental to the public housing project,” Stancil said.

But the town also needs to consider the best location and how the wall would relate to nearby homes and businesses, he said.

The board also suggested identifying more burial plots in West Chapel Hill Cemetery, near the corner of Village Drive and Jay Street.

The town doesn’t have any ownership records for the existing burial plots or know every spot where people are buried, Moore said. A survey of three town-maintained cemeteries using ground-penetrating radar found at least 400 unmarked graves among the Barbee-Hargraves, Old Chapel Hill and West Chapel Hill cemeteries, he said. That survey and the resulting maps, which Preservation Chapel Hill funded, are being finished now, he said.

The work is important for preserving the cemeteries’ histories, he said.

“If we don’t get done with it, when we die, it dies with us,” he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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