Handle with care is perhaps one way to describe the task ahead for Southeastern Archeological Services of Athens.
The company is overseeing the digging up of a 19th century Thompson family cemetery, containing graves of one of Hall County’s founding families, and then moving it from its current spot off Lake Lanier to Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville.
“Everybody wants to keep (the process) moving,” said Thomas H. Gresham of Southeastern. “We don’t want to drag it out too long.”
Approved by the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 9, the 6.3-mile move will involve two main efforts — digging up the present cemetery off Dunlap Drive and then moving it to new graves in Alta Vista off Jesse Jewell Parkway.
“We’re going to make (the new cemetery) exactly the way the (Army Corps of Engineers) mapped it out and laid it out,” said Thomas H. Gresham of Southeastern.
The cemetery originally was where Lake Lanier is now, moved in 1957 by the Corps to higher ground when the lake was created. So, the Alta Vista move will be the cemetery’s second relocation.
“The very first part of what we’ll be doing is continuing to explore (the current cemetery) and figure out what we’ve got,” Gresham said. “Do we have 24 individual, separate holes — grave shafts for the reburials — or do we have something else? I’m not taking anything for granted as to what we’re going to find.”
The cemetery should contain at least a metal casket belonging to 11-year-old Andrew Thompson Jr.
Andrew was the grandson of Andrew and Cynthia Reid Thompson, also buried in the cemetery. The grandparents died in the mid-1800s, before the grandson’s death in 1868, according to a family tree that was part of a report Southeastern submitted with the relocation request.
The casket “will require some care,” Gresham said.
Boxes likely made of wood were used to include remains of other family members.
“I suspect there’s virtually nothing left of them,” Gresham said. “And we don’t know what’s going to be there in the way of remains. One thing we do know is it’s not going to be a skeleton (of the body) as laid out in the 1850s.”
Beyond that, “the main question is what’s in (the burial site), what’s left, what got preserved?” said Gresham, whose company has done close to a dozen burial relocations.
“There’s very rarely jewelry, but what’s common are buttons and buckles, and metal things, such as hair combs. We’ve found dentures and false teeth. Often, children are buried in a shroud or cloth.”
Unearthing a cemetery may seem a gruesome chore, but “for those of us who have done this quite a few times, it’s not that unsettling,” Gresham said. “And in many cases, particularly with family cemeteries, descendants are very interested in seeing what’s there.”
Specifics of the move haven’t been finalized. Gresham’s firm will be working with others, including a grave moving company and backhoe operators, in the effort.
“There’s still some discussion among family members about exactly how it’s going to proceed,” Gresham said.
The trek to Alta Vista could be repeated several times as stones and remains could be both numerous and heavy.
“The metal casket will probably be a trip on its own,” Gresham said.
Overall, the relocation costs could run as high as $25,000.
“It’s not cheap, and it’s not meant to be,” Gresham said.
The relocation has to wait at least 30 days from Hall County’s Jan. 9 decision to allow for any appeals.
The family is excited about the move to Alta Vista, which is historic in its own right, containing the graves of two Georgia governors, Civil War Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and three Revolutionary War soldiers.
The new cemetery is expected to be in an undug section of the cemetery lining up with a walkway leading to other graves.
“This just shows what can happen when people get together and put their best foot forward,” said Julius Hulsey, a Gainesville lawyer related to direct descendants who took the lead in trying to reach a solution.
Initially, another cemetery move didn’t sit well with descendants.
“In my opinion, the remains of my ancestors should rest in peace,” said one of the descendants, Wes Hulsey, early in the process.
Julius Hulsey said he’s also appreciative of the city of Gainesville, which runs Alta Vista.
“They could have said no,” he said. “They went out of their way because it was of historical nature.”
Hulsey said he expects some kind of ceremony will be held to dedicate the new cemetery.
“We want to have all the descendants here,” he said.