Local News

Wake County development turning up old graves

Posted January 8, 2009 6:13 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— Developers in Wake County have made some surprising finds: grave sites that date back as far as the 1700s.

The county typically holds three hearings a year – substantially more than five years ago – to ask the public what do with newly-discovered, old graveyards, planning officials say.

The presence of such unexpected graveyards stems from regional burial practices, said archaeologists who specialize in cemeteries.

"Down here in the South, there's a tradition of being buried on the family farmstead," John Clauser, consulting archaeologist for Of Grave Concerns, Inc., said.

The cemeteries are usually small, containing less than a dozen graves. But as development reaches further into rural areas, experts said, more cemeteries will be found.

"As the farmsteads are broken up and these things become abandoned, there's nobody to take care of them. They do disappear, and developers discover them," Clauser said.

Clauser said he wasn't surprised at the discovery of five old graves in the Turner Downs subdivision, although for residents, it was the last thing they expected to be in their neighborhood.

"You'd walk over and never know it was a cemetery," Clauser said. "The fact is we're running out of development space, and any place that is open probably has a cemetery in it – which is probably why it wasn't developed in the first place."

Nearby residents said they hope their newly found deceased get treated well.

"They should be cared for. They're somebody's relatives," resident Rick McKenna said.

Developers who find grave sites on their property face three options: preserve the site, contact the surviving family and let them handle the site, or remove and re-intern the graves.

"They're moved to a cemetery that's got long-term care, a church cemetery, a public cemetery," Clauser said. "These poor people are being moved, and perpetual care is the best we can do."

Moving old cemeteries requires a lengthy process that can cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per grave. Developers must advertise the plans in newspapers and hold public hearings, and ultimately, the county commissioners get to decide the graves' fate. A certified specialist, such as Clauser, must oversee the physical process of moving the graves.

The care needed to identify and appropriately move the graves keeps him in business, Clauser said.

"The first things we look for are depressions in the soil or round field stones placed on the grace," he said. "That's why I have a job – because not everyone can recognize it."

In the case of the Turner Downs graves, the developer decided to remove the graves. A public hearing will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 20 in Room 700 of the Wake County Courthouse, 316 Fayetteville St.

Turner Downs residents said they hope the process results in a good resting place for their deceased.

"They were flesh and blood at one point. To just leave them there, that's not right," McKenna said.