From graveyard to cemetery

Published 8:08 pm Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Through the years, headstones have separated from their graves in First Presbyterian Church’s graveyard. Until they were cemented altogether in one place several years ago, they rested against the back wall of the church. (WDN Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

First Presbyterian Church to move graves of founding members, others

The ancestors are moving.

From the graveyard of the First Presbyterian Church of Washington to a designated area in Oakdale Cemetery, the remains of early members of the church will be disinterred in April to make room for new expansion of the church.

That process is governed by N.C. General Statute 65-106, which determines what organizations may move a grave, how they may move it and where it may be moved. According to the statute, “disinterment, removal, and reinterment of graves” may be conducted by “any church authority in order to erect a new church, parish house, parsonage, or any other facility owned and operated exclusively by such church; in order to expand or enlarge an existing church facility.”

For First Presbyterian Church, the reason is expansion.

“We’re landlocked. We have nowhere else to go,” said Bettie Bonner Bradshaw, a member of the church’s planning commission.

Hemmed in closely by West Second Street to the north, Gladden Street to the west, Mid Town Lane — the lane running behind West Main Street commercial buildings — to the south, the only room for new construction is eastward.

“We’re doing this obviously for the expansion of the building,” said William Lee Kinney, the church’s pastor. “We have no other option but to move out that way.”

With the highly state-regulated move, the church was required to notify all descendants of those being disinterred. To that end, a genealogist was hired to track down the living relatives of those in the 19th-century graves.

“The graves that are being moved — most of them are the Fowle family,” explained Bradshaw.

West Main Street resident and church member Sadie Fowle numbers among those descendants. Fowle and her three children received a letter of notification and a letter of invitation to an open forum and information session to be conducted April 3. Fowle had but one request before she granted her assent to move the remains to the planning commission.

“I said, ‘The headstone of the founder of the church had to stay,’” Fowle explained. “My children and I are all in agreement on this.”

The committee agreed to Fowle’s request to keep the monument in honor of the founder, as well as move it from its current location. Samuel Richardson Fowle’s grave is marked partially by a massive marble obelisk and partially by the last expansion of the church. In a less-politically correct time, new construction was simply built on top of existing graves. As it stands, Samuel Fowle’s gravestone faces the rear, brick wall of the church from a distance of less than a foot away.

“When it gets moved, it can actually be read again,” said Sadie Fowle.

According to Kinney, the church has received no complaints from either its members or the notified descendants.

“We’ve had a couple of calls, just mostly curiosity,” said Kinney. “Someone did call from Wisconsin because he didn’t even realize he had relatives out here.”

The process of disinterment and reinterment will begin with the removal of an oak tree that’s grown up in the midst of the graves, the roots of which likely have already interfered with the existing graves and, at times, the church’s plumbing, according to Bradshaw. Licensed by the state of North Carolina, R. Ward Sutton, a cemetery services specialist from Rocky Mount, has been contracted by the church to do the exhumation.

How many remains there are to be moved will continue to be a mystery until the day of disinterment. The number could fall anywhere between 15 and 35, according to Kinney, because in nearly two centuries, a number of headstones have migrated away from the graves they once marked.

“What remains of the remains will be very limited,” said Kinney. “There’s also the possibility that graves have collapsed, doubled up.”

Regardless of the state of the remains, Kinney says that both spiritually and lawfully, the handling of them must be respectful.

“We’ll be doing it in a way that is religiously sensitive. We’ll have a service and prayers with each removal,” Kinney described. “It’s an extremely dignified process.”

The remains will be reinterred in Oakdale Cemetery on a hill beneath the oaks there.

Vail Stewart Rumley attends First Presbyterian Church of Washington.