Work close to Kannapolis graves a concern

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 9, 2011

By Joanie Morris
For the Salisbury Post
KANNAPOLIS — Martha Harrell was driving down West C Street when she noticed some work going on at the Kannapolis Cemetery right next to Village Park. This is where the city is replacing a failing retaining wall, adding brick signage to the cemetery and enclosing the entire cemetery in a black, wrought-iron fence.
Harrell wasn’t concerned about the construction until she saw how close workers were getting to some gravesites there.
“We feel like they are encroaching on some of the graves,” Harrell said this week. She considers herself somewhat of an expert on the Kannapolis Cemetery since she served on its committee, and still has copies of some records dating to the era before the city took it over. “We feel like a lot of this is in violation of the law.”
Specifically, Harrell said, the city is violating laws on the desecration of graves. She wonders what type of consultation city officials have had with professional archaeologists in determining where unmarked graves may be, as well as what permissions the city has obtained from state officials.
“From what I understand, this is a project that the Parks and Recreation committee took on because they had some funds and they wanted to beautify the cemetery,” Harrell said. “They have overstepped the bounds a little bit.”
Harrell has family buried in the cemetery and said she never received notice that the parks department would be doing work near their graves. In fact, she contends workers cut into the family plot of her great-grandfather to construct part of the new wall.
She went out Tuesday afternoon and spoke to Gary Mills, director of Parks and Recreation for Kannapolis, about the construction and her concerns.
“I feel I know the cemetery pretty closely,” she told Mills. “I saw work at A-plot (where the Demarcus family is laid to rest). You encroach on the Demarcus plot too close.”
Mills responded by assuring Harrell the city located exactly where the graves were in the plot and spoke to the Demarcus family prior to any work. In addition, Mills said, the plans were actually changed because they didn’t want to disturb the plot.
Near where the original E.F. Demarcus is buried, there will now be a brick-and-mortar sign announcing the Kannapolis Cemetery, at the entrance of Village Park. The sign sits approximately two feet from the Demarcus headstone.
“We know where the graves are,” Mills said. He tried to assure Harrell: “I’m not disturbing the graves.”
Harrell also contends that Mills has possibly encroached on unmarked graves.
“If you look down at the ground and there’s a sunken area, there’s likely a grave there,” Harrell told Mills. She was concerned that one of the signs may be built on unmarked graves.
“We looked at lots and probed through,” said Mills. “Both sides are vacant lots.”
Mills has spent the past 11 years since the city took over the cemetery learning about it. In addition to records that were reconstructed by the cemetery committee after the old YMCA fire that destroyed the original records, Mills has compiled his own records. After spring rains, Mills and his employees often go out to the cemetery to locate unmarked graves by poking into the ground with a rod specifically designed to locate the graves.
“If it sinks only (5 inches), we know there’s no grave,” Mills said. Graves are often easy to distinguish with the rod. If the rod sinks far into the dirt, Mills and his crew do more work to determine whether a grave is in the location. Softer dirt often signals that there is a grave there, where dirt was disturbed. Mills said that no matter how old a grave is, the rod will sink farther than that 5 inches or so.
One area where Mills admits that a grave may have been disturbed is along the side of the cemetery, where work is being done to replace the failing retaining wall.
It is the area where the Bakers, the first settlers of Kannapolis and among the first buried in the cemetery, are buried. The retaining wall in that area was leaning at approximately a 15-degree angle toward West C Street and had to be replaced.
“In the process of replacing the failing retaining wall, as the dirt dried and sloughed off the slope in the sun, a small portion of a vault became temporarily exposed,” Mills said in a statement Wednesday after questioned about the exposed vault. The vault most likely belongs to a family buried beside the Bakers, in the same area where the wall was coming down.
Mills said the vault was immediately covered with a tarp, and later a piece of plywood was added to the side of the slope where the vault had been visible in order to completely cover it.
“Efforts were made to expedite the process of replacing the wall in the area where the vault was exposed,” Mills said. “The new footers were poured (Wednesday) morning.”
The wall construction continued Wednesday, and Mills said backfill was being placed behind the wall as it was constructed.
“It should be understood that the wall had to be replaced, as it had cracked and was leaning over the sidewalk and West C Street, posing a definite safety hazard to pedestrians and motorists alike.”
Mills said significant damage could have occurred to graves behind the wall if it had collapsed.
“The exposure of the vault was inadvertent and efforts have been made through the project not to disturb any graves,” he added. “We obviously regret this happening and feel certain most families will understand the need for the maintenance and appreciate the improvements that are being made.”
Harrell said she’s not satisfied city officials have done everything they can.
“I wasn’t (satisfied after talking with Mills) because he wouldn’t recognize the fact that they had done anything wrong,” Harrell said. She still contends that the city has encroached. “He did not recognize the fact that they were in the wrong on some of those graves.”
Mills contends that other than the inadvertent exposure of the vault, the city has been mindful and cautious of the graves in the cemetery while replacing the retaining wall, adding entrance signage and eventually even a wrought-iron fence around the cemetery.
“We are as sure as we can be,” Mills said when asked if the city is certain the workers aren’t encroaching on graves. “The records that we’ve got … we’ve followed to the best of our knowledge. We are doing everything possible to not encroach.”
Joanie Morris is a freelance writer. She can be reached at 704-797-4248 or