Spirit of Rowan 2023: Silent History: Cemeteries can tell a lot about ourselves

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 26, 2023

Cemeteries can tell so many kinds of stories: mysteries, romances and even horror. Seeing the names and dates, people can infer what happened to those who lived and died hundreds of years ago. They tell of a rich history that may seem like a missing puzzle piece that shows a glimpse of the average person who lived in Rowan County.

The Organ Zion Lutheran Church in Salisbury still has its original stone church that has been renovated over the years since it was completed in 1794. Next to it is the cemetery that has been around for just as long. Littered about are faded, worn down headstones that are barely legible. Across the street, the church has a cemetery that people can be buried in today, but the bygone cemetery is still there to act as a museum for Rowan County.

The graves go back as far as the Revolutionary War. The headstones are more simple, quaint and smaller compared to ones that are made now. It shows the passing of time as most graves are no longer maintained by the families due to a multitude of reasons. Keeping up the graves of a relative that someone never met may not be a priority. People still call the church to see if their ancestors are buried at the cemetery. There is also a website for people to search and see if any relatives are still there.

Back then, churches and cemeteries were more interconnected when compared to modern cemeteries that deal with funeral homes. People had to hand dig graves back then and do everything manually. In the middle of the cemetery, there is space with no headstones. This is because it is a mass grave where bodies were laid to rest and acts as a reminder to how far Rowan County has come in honoring those who have passed.

The Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Salisbury was established in 1888. Around 10,000 people are buried there now with more than 100 people added every year. The city owns and operates it.

The headstones are in better condition than the ones at Organ Zion Lutheran Church, the reflection in the granite is still visible even on a cloudy day. A separate business across the street sells headstones and monuments but is not affiliated with the cemetery.

“Most of the plots in Chestnut Hill are already sold. We only have about maybe 200 spaces left,” Cemetery Administrator Linda Davis said.

Davis says Chestnut Hill has to keep up with contemporary trends with how people wish to be laid to rest. “They say cremations are going to be the thing in the future, but we don’t know. Right now, we’re going back and forth,” Davis said.

Columbariums at Memorial Park built were built to prepare for cremations to be displayed above ground. People can call Chestnut Hill directly to see if they can bury cremains there, but for full-sized burials a funeral home would need to make those arrangements. Overall, there are more options today if people want to be cremated or if they still want to be buried.

“A lot of people are going to cremations now instead of full-sized burials, now we’re still burying a lot of cremains. If you’re cremated you can be buried in the ground, you don’t have to just not,” Davis said.

Many of the plots at Chestnut Hill were bought many years ago but are left unused because those people’s decedents have not committed to the same resting place as they did.

“Those were sold way back when, early 1900s and further. People back then thought that their family was going to stay in Salisbury forever. So if they had five kids, they bought an eight-grave plot thinking mom and daddy and five kids were going to be buried there. But as you know kids grow up and they move away,” Davis said.

Maintenance at Chestnut Hill is key to being successful. Public Works helps mow the grass, trim the trees, collect leaves and trim hedges. The city also does an annual clean up toward the end of January. Salisbury says that can be hard because people do not always follow the guidelines of what is acceptable to place on the graves.

Luckily, workers don’t have to dig the graves by hand anymore. Chestnut Hill has an excavator they use to dig the graves in only 30 minutes. The graves are actually only four-and-a-half feet instead of the presumed six.

Chestnut Hill has no budget to repair headstones, so the older ones start to look like those at Zion Lutheran.

“We have some markers at Chestnut Hill that are broken, a lot of real thin ones like 1800s that are broken. What we try to do if they break, we take them and lean them against the base because those families are nowhere to be found,” Davis said.

Cemeteries have always been prevalent in Rowan County. It may seem macabre to dwell on cemeteries and what happens to certain people years after they have been laid to rest. In fact, it’s very important because after a while these graves show people now who populated Rowan County and how they chose to forever be a part of the area.