Kannapolis Cemetery has a new look

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 28, 2011

By Hugh Fisher
KANNAPOLIS – Under the trees at the corner of Loop Road and West C Street lie generations of mill workers, their neighbors and their families.
Gary Mills, Kannapolis Parks and Recreation director, said it’s humbling to see that cemetery and know all that it stands for.
Walking through the burial ground, underneath the shade of a nearly century-old magnolia tree, he said the hallowed ground is home to many stories and many people who literally built Kannapolis.
The finishing touches are now being placed on a long-planned improvement project at the historic cemetery.
Black steel fence now surrounds the property off Loop Road and West C Street, with red brick walls topped with ornamental masonry.
Gateways clearly mark the entrances, where gravel roads have now been paved.
Thanks to some additional funding that became available in the city budget, Mills said the historic cemetery now has better security and a more dignified look.
New steel fence, painted black, borders the cemetery along West C Street.
And red brick gateways with white stonework frame newly-paved roads which had been gravel through most of the burial ground’s history.
Mills said the work was necessary, especially since former walls on site were in disrepair.
During construction, some earth fell away and briefly exposed part of a burial vault.
Mills said the area was quickly covered, and that aside from some concerns expressed by a resident at the time, there were no other issues during construction.
The cemetery project was originally approved in 2009, but a moratorium on capital projects put the improvements on hold.
Mills said that the project was able to be combined with needed improvements at adjacent Village Park.
Mills said feedback on the improvements had been “incredibly positive.”
“It gives you a much different feel. It looks taken care of,” he said.
Mayor Bob Misenheimer said the cemetery’s renovations are a matter of civic pride.
“I have had several people mention to me what a great improvement it is,” Misenheimer said. “They’ve done a good job out there.”
Misenheimer recalls the old days when citizens volunteered to work at the cemetery.
Then, he said, clubs used cemetery work as a fund-raiser. There were also times when grass grew tall among the gravestones.
Today, Misenheimer said, “I think it’s something that the city can be proud of.”
Historic challenge
The cemetery presents a unique set of challenges for Kannapolis’ city leaders.
Regular maintenance, for one thing. There have been times when upkeep was lax.
In the offices of Kannapolis Parks and Recreation next door to the cemetery, Mills showed a copy of a photo from the late 1960s.
“The grass grew waist-high,” Mills said, pointing to a funeral tent and floral arrangements set up in what could have easily been mistaken for a pasture field.
“It was not well-maintained until the city got ahold of it. Everybody will tell you that,” Mills said.
When it was purchased, along with other former Cannon Mills properties, in the 1990s, local volunteers formed an association to maintain the grounds and tend the graves.
In 2000, Mills said, the city took over regular maintenance from the volunteers. The city plans to maintain the cemetery in perpetuity.
Today, Kannapolis Cemetery is technically considered “closed” because the last of the plots were sold in the 1940s, Mills said.
But burials continue at the rate of one or two a month, and they are growing more frequent, he said, as two things happen.
Some original purchasers of those plots, now in their 80s and 90s, are passing away, he said.
But more often, plots sold decades earlier are now being used by the children or grandchildren of the original purchaser.
“I imagine that 90 percent of the people being buried now didn’t purchase these plots,” Mills said.
Because so many families have loved ones there, Mills said, he gets calls weekly from those who want to purchase plots there.
“I have to tell them no,” Mills said.
And the terms of the original sale prohibit families from reselling those burial rights, though Mills said they can be transferred to other family members.
A large amount of space in the cemetery looks empty, partly due to the fact that many plots purchased have yet to be used.
Mills said that family members may not even know that lots were purchased by their parents or grandparents.
Cannon Mills sold plots in Kannapolis Cemetery in blocks of six, Mills said.
“It’s possible that some of them will never be used,” he said.
Another issue, Mills said, is that many of those “empty” spaces are actually not empty.
On a walk through the cemetery, Mills pointed out indentations along the rows of graves, showing where the earth has settled.
“There are at least 131 known unmarked graves,” Mills said.
That is, the plot was sold to a family and a person was interred there, but no marker was ever erected.
Often, he said, mill workers couldn’t afford to put up a gravestone.
But there were also cases of poverty where employees couldn’t even afford to purchase a plot.
Then, Mills said, “Mr. Cannon would give them a plot in the free section.”
The lower end of section A in Kannapolis Cemetery is filled with those unmarked graves for which no sales record ever existed.
Many of those are the graves of children, Mills said.
To make matters worse, scores of original records from the Cannon Mills years were lost to fire decades ago, Mills said.
Working with local historians and volunteers, most of the records have been recreated, he said.
And maps dating from around the 1930s and updated in following years show many of those who were buried.
Still, Mills said, there are 150 to 200 known burials without markers or records.
“And we will probably never know who they are unless family members come forward,” Mills said.
Between requests for plots, family members seeking their loved ones’ resting places and the ongoing burials, the cemetery has become a big part of the director’s job.
“I bet I spend over a quarter of my week on the cemetery,” Mills said.
But, Mills said, he’s not complaining.
“You know what, I have met a bunch of great people and heard lots of stories,” Mills said.
Lasting legacy
And, he said, the cemetery is part of Kannapolis’ history, Mills said, and it’s important to preserve that knowledge and those stories for the future.
On last Friday’s walk through Kannapolis Cemetery, Mills described something that he said touched his heart every year.
In the part of section A, where many of the unmarked graves are found, he said, periwinkle flowers bloom every year.
“And if you look,” Mills said, “they seem to grow mostly over the children’s graves.”
Further up the hill in section B, Mills pointed to a weather-worn marble marker from almost 100 years ago.
On it were the birth and death dates of a couple and their unnamed infant child.
The father and the infant died on the same day. The mother passed away just days later.
“Somewhere in this town, there’s a person who knows that story,” Mills said.
Recent improvements may offer another opportunity for the future.
One of the roads through the cemetery was removed as part of the renovations.
That area has been measured, Mills said, and could accommodate as many as 56 burial plots.
As of now, there are no firm plans to offer plots for sale.
The Kannapolis City Council would have to make the ultimate decision, Mills said.
Still, he said he would be in favor of exploring those options, though he felt arguments could be made for and against adding any new gravesites.
Misenheimer and Legg confirmed that city leaders haven’t discussed selling plots.
But the mayor said it could be advantageous to offer those plots for sale, especially if there is a demand.
“It’s only natural that you would want to be where your loved ones are,” Misenheimer said.
Another option might be to construct a columbarium — a wall with niches for the ashes of those who have been cremated.
Either way, Mills said, might offer a chance for more people to find a final resting place in Kannapolis.
And it could generate revenue to help with future projects.
A personal wish, Mills said, would be to map every grave site, including those that aren’t marked, and provide some sort of simple marker even when no name can be found.
Technology exists to do this, he said, but doing so would be a project for a far future date.
But some improvements can, and will, be made in the near term.
Where headstones, footstones and plot markers have sunk or settled, Mills said, city employees will begin this fall to raise and reset them.
That work will be done “as time allows,” and with funds already allocated to Parks and Recreation, Mills said.
Keeping the cemetery well-tended is important, Legg said.
“I think it shows respect for our history and our heritage,” Legg said, “for those who were here before us and the families who have loved ones there.”
Misenheimer said the city’s control of the cemetery does add some additional costs and responsibilities.
“But I am glad the city took it over, and that we can make those improvements,” Misenheimer said.
“We need to remember, these are the people who literally built Kannapolis,” Mills said.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.