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Where the heart is

Church cemetaries were once the final resting place of choice

POSTED: November 29, 2009 12:30 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

The Rev. Charles Shadburn of Peoples Baptist Church points to an area near the church that will be used for a church cemetery.

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This is the first of an occasional series called "Preservation and Progress," a series dedicated to the historic side of Hall County.

When Charles Shadburn asked the Hall County Planning Commission for permission to build a cemetery at Peoples Baptist Church, he realized it was an unusual request.

Shadburn, the pastor of the small church near Flowery Branch, said a cemetery is one of the first things the members of the tight-knit congregation asked him for when he became the pastor in 2008.

"Everybody wanted a cemetery," Shadburn said. "They've been here forever and they want to be buried here when they pass on."

Being buried at the church will also be much more affordable for many families.

"The lots will be much cheaper here," Charles Shadburn said. "They will range from $100 to $400."

The church sits on 11 acres and the cemetery will take up a little more than one acre.

Shadburn's wife Barbara said she hopes to be buried at the church after her death.

"It's where my heart is," Barbara Shadburn said. "This is like home."

Hidden History

Church cemeteries have become less common over the years as land has become more scarce and expensive and zoning ordinances have gotten more strict.

The small graveyards are a typical passing sight on a country drive -- gravestones adorned with silk flowers tucked quietly to the sides of rural churches like little gardens.

But it wasn't always so.

Hall County's earliest settlers shunned the idea of having their remains buried at a church, said Vicki Bentley, president of the Stone Rangers, a group of local historians who work to catalogue and preserve the county's cemeteries.

The majority of region's first settlers were staunch Protestants who came to America from Scotland and Northern England.

"These Protestant immigrants held a church cemetery to be evidence of "Popery," Bentley said. "That is to say, under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church which had strict regulations regarding who could, or could not, be buried on hallowed church ground."

Most opted instead to bury kin on their property, eventually creating small family cemeteries.

Bentley said there are at least 140 such family cemeteries in the county and likely more.

The late historian and genealogist Sybil McRay worked to painstakingly record the many small family and church cemeteries within the county. She compiled her research into a 1971 book titled, "Tombstone Inscriptions of Hall County Georgia," which now serves as the definitive publication for many genealogists in the area.

The Stone Rangers are working to update McRay's work, adding GPS coordinates and grave sites that were not included in the original publication.

Steve Wang, one of the members of the Stone Rangers, said many of the cemeteries listed in McRay's book are difficult to find because of how much Hall County has changed over the years. Wang said one major category they are working to update is black cemeteries.

"Either by accident or oversight or just a lack of comfort she generally did not document African American cemeteries and we view that as a glaring omission," Wang said.

Coming Together

As the years went on, some family cemeteries started to serve as church cemeteries.

The disdain for the Catholic Church softened as new generations were born and raised in the area.

"I think a lot of it had to do with changing values," Bentley said.

Bill Coates, pastor of First Baptist Church in Gainesville said it was also convenient to bury people near churches.

"Churches normally had a fair amount of land with them at one time," Coates said. "It was sort of logical to have a cemetery for the members of the church to be buried in when they died. It was comforting and still is to a lot of people to know that their eternal resting place will be right there where they invested so much of their lives in their church."

But over time, the need for a central, city cemetery became apparent and Alta Vista cemetery was established 1872.

"The city of Gainesville finally said, the people in the city limits must bury their dead at Alta Vista," said Kathy Amos, chair of the Gainesville Historic Preservation Commission.

Amos said the city decreed other burial places within the city limits had to be transferred to Alta Vista.

At the time, there were a few other cemeteries around, including a Nazareth Church cemetery and the Brown family cemetery where the Gainesville library branch now sits.

For that reason, many of the tombstones at Alta Vista outdate the cemetery.

"We've got graves that date back to 1820," said Vince Evans, superintendent of Alta Vista Cemetery.

When Lake Lanier was filled in 1958, many more graves were relocated to Alta Vista.

"This cemetery pretty much represents this history of Gainesville and Hall County," Evans said. "Areas change. And this is just a reflection of what's gone on."

While Alta Vista Cemetery is the burial place of many interesting historical figures-including the well-visited grave of Civil War Lt. General James Longstreet-the small, hidden cemeteries in the dusty corners of the county have their fair share of stories too.

Wang said two Hall County outlaws are buried in a family plot in Northwest Hall.

"Out near Cool Springs Baptist there is a Grant family cemetery," Wang said. "The two were buried in the front yard of the Grant home place because they were refused burial in the church ground. They were moonshiners and they're listed on their tombstone as being assassinated by federal agents in the 1880s."

A Gillsville cemetery that dates back to the early 1800s has also provided some interesting clues to the past.

"We worked extensively on the Casey family cemetery which is also known as a church cemetery in Gillsville," Wang said. "It is in a great big fan shape. The graves even appear to be turned in kind of a crescent pattern toward the east, which is kind of interesting."

"It appears to be, at least to us, a non-segregated cemetery," Wang said.

Unfortunately, many of the graves in family cemeteries are marked only with field stones that bare no inscriptions.

"We can find graves themselves a whole lot better than we can find the identities of who is buried there," Wang said.

So many of these small cemeteries could be easily concealed by plant growth, which is why Wang thinks it's important to catalog them.

"In the explosive, subdividing sort of situation we've got going on we hope will be helpful to make sure someone doesn't wind up with their house atop a cemetery," Wang said.

Staying Close

Today, many city churches have found a way to house people's remains even if they don't have much land.

"Where you now see church cemeteries is mostly in a rural community where you've still got a lot of land and less of a transient population," Coates said.

Coates said with about 30 percent of the population now choosing to be cremated after death, many churches are building columbaria.

First Baptist Church installed a columbarium, a structure that houses cremated remains, during recent renovations.

"Many people will have their resting place right here even though we don't have the land," Coates said. "You'll see that more and more in churches. It takes up a lot less space and yet the honor for the deceased person is just as strong."




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