New Gray Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

In 2019, a contractor working for the developer of two Tennessee businesses bulldozed a historic cemetery, scraping old tombstones off graves and dumping them in a large pile of dirt and stones.

A cemetery preservationist, arriving at the site to help maintain the Rutherford County cemetery, discovered the demolition and alerted authorities. The work, preparing for the construction of a gun store and a shooting range, was stopped and relocation of the graves – which themselves had not been disturbed – was proposed by authorities. 

That’s the kind of burial ground desecration that a new database and map of Tennessee’s estimated 33,000 cemeteries – many of them small and easily overlooked – is aimed at preventing.

The Tennessee Historical Commission, which in recent weeks released the map and database, hopes that not just families and genealogists will make use of the resources.

“My hope is that the database will not only be for history buffs and genealogists but also developers,” Graham Perry, historic cemetery preservation specialist at the Tennessee Historical Commission, said in an interview for this article. “We love that the historians will be able to use it, and private citizens, but we hope others use it as well. I hope it’s a multiple-use tool.”

Graveyards, cemeteries, and burial grounds are among the most revered places in the world, but they can fall into disrepair and can be overlooked. The contractor in the Rutherford County incident said the graves were not noticed because of rocks and overgrown weeds, and workers didn’t know the graves were there.

With 33,000 cemeteries in the Tennessee database, Perry said, that’s a lot of graveyards to count, not to mention maintain. In most states, including Tennessee, the upkeep of small cemeteries falls to the owners or, as in Indiana, township-level government. But maintenance and record-keeping can be uneven. 

Cemeteries are treasure troves of history and tributes to those long gone … if they can be found and accessed.

‘The Land of the Dead?’

Cemeteries run the gamut from large, formal ones like Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, to small private plots for families whose last relative moved on long ago. “Rural, garden-style” cemeteries like Cave Hill, chartered in 1848, were developed as rural oases in growing cities, providing an idealized country-like resting place for the deceased and green space for recreation. (Among the people buried at Cave Hill are Muhammad Ali and Colonel Harlan Sanders. There are tours of Cave Hill and a yellow line on the paved lanes leads to Sanders’ burial place, which includes a bust of the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken.)

At the other end of the spectrum are family burial grounds in various states of repair and maintenance. Take a drive along many country roads – or interstate highways, for that matter – and you’ll see small, isolated burial grounds. Sometimes they’re in church yards. Sometimes they’re in the middle of farm fields and are surrounded by fences. Farmers plow and plant around the small parcels of family history.

Is Tennessee “the land of the dead?” That’s the nickname suggested by a 2022 article by Caroline Eggers of WPLN, Nashville’s NPR station. 

New Gray Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

With 33,000 cemeteries, Tennessee has the “most cemeteries respective to the living,” according to the article. That’s based on federal data that indicated Tennessee has more graveyards per 100,000 people than anywhere else in the United States. For that article, Perry suggested it was possible that Tennessee simply has more data on graveyards. 

Yet, they can be hard to find, even in urban were development pressure has been more likely to lead to documentation. 

In the heart of Knoxville, Tennessee, there are sprawling, well-maintained cemeteries like the New Gray Cemetery Company, along Western Avenue. A successor to the Old Gray Cemetery, which dated to 1850, the New Gray has rolling lawns, obelisks, and headstones dating throughout the 20th century. 

Henry Lonas Cemetery is deep within a Knoxville neighborhood and surrounded by a fence. The historical marker visible through the fence notes that Henry Lonas, born in 1765, established the cemetery in 1813. Buried there are Lonas family members who fought in the War of 1812. But on a recent Saturday, the barbed wire-topped fence meant that the cemetery was inaccessible to the public – possibly due to vandalism to the markers in the cemetery, which had been reported in Knoxville newspapers over the decades. 

Lonas Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Keith Roysdon)

By contrast, the Thomas Davis Cemetery, which is also included in the Tennessee database, couldn’t easily be found. Online photos make it appear to be a small lot with only a handful of stones. The popular website Find-A-Grave notes that it is on the property of an old Sears warehouse and only one marker remains standing, although broken pieces of other markers were seen in the area.

Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana have different ways of keeping track of their cemeteries and the people buried in them. 

‘History Changes’

About 20,000 “cemeteries and burial grounds,” as Indiana’s Cemetery and Burial Registry terms them, dot the landscape of the Hoosier state. As an Indiana resident for most of my life, I often visited some of those graveyards, many of which were small but well-kept and easy to find. 

Some were virtually forgotten, however. Thirty years ago, I wrote newspaper articles about a cemetery that had fallen into disrepair as it became little used and infrequently visited. The graveyard was not on any road and was partially hidden between a church property and an apartment building. The graveyard was overgrown and animals had dug into some graves, leaving unearthed bones scattered on the ground. The cemetery was later better maintained with the help of government officials and historic preservation advocates.

In Tennessee, it’s against the law for someone to bulldoze a cemetery without moving the graves and, Perry noted, “Just because you bulldoze a cemetery, it doesn’t disappear. It’s Tennessee law that a cemetery still exists, even if there’s a house on it.”

When Perry began working on the Tennessee cemetery list more than three years ago, there was no centralized database. Perry logged every site he could find and if he received a call reporting a cemetery, he would make a note of it. 

He said it was sometimes hard to determine the owner of a cemetery and who should be keeping it up. “Since families have the right to maintain and beautify, the families are the default owner. And families can feud.”

Families and cemetery buffs should contact Perry at the Tennessee Historical Commission to suggest graveyards that should be added to the database. The commission maintains an FAQ and a way to submit cemetery locations.

A detail of cemeteries in Fentress County, Tennessee, that are in the state’s cemetery database. The author’s paternal grandparents are buried in the county, but the burial ground is not in the state database yet. The creator of the state’s database said cataloging cemeteries is an unfolding process, not something that can be finished. (Source: Tennessee Historical Commission Historic Cemeteries Viewer)

Not every Tennessee cemetery is listed in the state historical commission’s database. Alticrest Cemetery, in Fentress County, isn’t in the database. That’s where my paternal grandfather and grandmother are buried as well as a dozen or so other relatives.

Fentress County has a surprising number of graveyards, literally dozens, from Alticrest to Clarkrange to Crockett – named for family members of David Crockett, a distant relative of mine – to those with more colorful names like Wolf River and Rotten Fork. 

It’s not a failing of the historical commission’s new cemetery and graveyard database that some of the state’s 33,000-plus burial grounds are not yet mapped, Perry said. Cemeteries – even cemeteries dating back 200 years or more – and the cataloging of them is unlikely to ever end.

“People don’t like to believe it, but history changes,” he said. “More information comes to light.

“When I was contemplating the database, I just wanted it to be better than every other state. It’s a work in progress and it will never end. It goes on and on… because cemeteries are always popping up. There’s always been a task and an end but this one is one that is never going to end and someone is going to take it over when we’re gone.”

Keith Roysdon is a Knoxville-based writer. For The Daily Yonder, he’s written about “Cocaine Bear,” Buc-ee’s, moonshine, and other topics. His fourth co-authored true crime book, “Cold Case Muncie,” about unsolved murders in what’s been called “the typical small American city,” is due to be published on August 14, 2023.

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