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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Relocated Cemeteries In Appalachia

A recent posting by my blogging friend the Wayfarin' Stranger on his blog which was actually about an old one room school prompted this post. The post and his wonderful blog can be found at:  I responded to his discussion of the movement of the school for the creation of Cave Run Lake near his native Morehead, KY,  with an e-mail about the need for both of us to examine and blog about the movement of family cemeteries to facilitate the construction of these flood control projects all over Appalachia.  He responded with the idea that we both write about it and cross link our articles which was his way to get me reactivated in blogging since I had done nothing since the March 2, 2011, tornado devastated my home town of West Liberty, KY.  That is a topic which I will approach sometime soon.  It is still a bit too fresh in most of our minds.

But, to get back to the real topic of this article, there are several federally funded flood control lakes in every state in the Central Appalachian Region.  Within easy driving distance of me, there are Cave Run Lake, Paintsville Lake, Yatesville Lake, Dewey Lake, and Buckhorn Lake.  All were built after World War II, funded by federal dollars, and in whole or in part managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers.  There are actually 18 such lakes in the entire state of Kentucky, 10 throughout West Virginia, 5 in Tennessee, 6 in Virginia, 4 in North Carolina, and 10 in Georgia.  Each of these states may also have one or more river drainages which are overseen by the Corps of Engineers.  There are also several other lakes in each of the states which is partially contained in the greater Appalachian area but outside Central or Southern Appalachia.  I am concerned only with the cemeteries which have been affected by the construction of lakes in the Central Appalachian Region.  But within the states named, there are more than 50 such lakes. I also note for the record that all of the above states territory does not lie in Central Appalachia and neither do all of the 53 lakes. 

The Corps of Engineers actually controls more than 400 lakes in 43 states.  Nearly every one of these man made lakes required the movement of grave sites and cemeteries.  A few may have also affected or destroyed Native American archaeological sites including grave sites. A fairly good, but relatively non-disclosive and primarily tourism oriented page about the lakes can be found at:

Each of these lakes is entirely man made and their construction mandated the removal and relocation of several and perhaps dozens of small, family cemeteries.  In each case, the government purchased title to the land involved whenever possible and paid contractors to excavate and relocate all known graves which would be in the flood plain of the lakes. Whenever opposition to the individual purchases was encountered, the government began adverse legal proceedings under the legal doctrine known as eminent domain and seized the land.  In either case, the government paid for the purchase of land near the lake for the construction of a merged cemetery which would contain most or all of the relocated graves.  So far as I know, in each case, the cemeteries were also built large enough to allow for the burial of future dead in the locale.  Whenever descendants objected to relocation of graves to the merged cemetery, they were generally given the option of moving them to a site of their own choosing although this relocation may not have been at government expense. And one of the other real tragedies of this whole relocation effort lies in the fact that many of the older cemeteries would have also contained poorly marked or even totally unmarked graves which were never found and are flooded today.  In many of these cases, no living human remained who even remembered the exact location of these graves or the names of the individuals buried in them. 

Each of these merged cemeteries is operated by a manager under the laws of the state and federal governments. Most, if not all, of these cemeteries are managed in an efficient and ethical fashion.  This article is intended to be a non-biased look at the cultural issues involved in relocation of graves in Appalachia and not intended as any negative assessment of the processes involved in the management of the new cemeteries.  I will leave readers to draw their own conclusions about how this massive relocation of graves has affected the descendants of the dead in each case, both in and outside Central Appalachia. 

I have not visited most of the cemeteries involved in Central Appalachia.  But I have visited several in both Kentucky and West Virginia.  I am more concerned with the general cultural issues involved and limit specific references to those lakes and cemeteries with which I am most familiar.  I have also sought to gain first hand information from one or more of the managers involved in the process.  However, an initial attempt to gain previously publicly released information about the cemeteries from a Corps of Engineers employee was less than openly addressed.  I suspect that, in many cases, relocation of graves has been a touchy subject in Central Appalachia.  I can only vaguely remember the construction of Carr Fork Lake in my native Knott County Kentucky.  But I do recall that my neighbors who were often unemployed avoided applying for the jobs available as laborers in the relocation process.  Contractors were generally not local but did advertise and hire local people when they would accept the work.    However, most local males would not apply for and would not have accepted jobs whose sole purpose was the excavation of graves and relocation of the dead.

Culturally speaking, three major aspects and key values of Appalachian Culture collide with the process of relocating cemeteries. These values are Love of Place, Familism, and Religion.  These relocated graves and cemeteries were most often located on old family home places and considered sacred to the descendants.  The two most important institutions in Appalachian Culture are family and church.  The three most important physical locations to the average Appalachian are the old home place, the family cemetery, and the church which the family usually attended.  In many cases, the construction of these lakes and the relocation of graves would have destroyed all three of these important locations and dealt serious damage to the two institutions as well. In all cases of property transfers for these lakes, the property would have been appraised at actual market value if sold.  Many of these older churches, especially Old Regular Baptist, United Baptist, Holiness, and Pentecostal churches would have been simple wood frame buildings with little monetary value in relation to their religious and cultural value. These congregations would have often been tasked with buying land and building new buildings in an area where land was now more valuable both because of the tourism potential and the increased scarcity due to flooding. More often than not, these small congregations would have been placed in a position of great monetary stress due to the much larger cost of replacement compared to the market value of buildings that were small, cheaply built, and of advanced age.

Although I do not generally believe that feuding was as common an occurrence in Appalachia as various forms of media have described it, disagreements between neighboring families occur in all locales across the world as a part of normal daily life.  Relocating several small family cemeteries in a relatively constricted locale, usually one creek or river valley, would have often resulted in members of several families being buried in close proximity to people with whom they had disagreed in life.  Descendants would not have forgotten those disagreements and would have been upset by the idea of having family members buried in the same cemetery with "them Hicks'" for example. 

But the real opposition to moving graves lay in the idea that graves are sacred and the dead should remain in the original grave until the resurrection. This is a topic which I did not address adequately in my earlier posting about family cemeteries.  It was an idea I should have addressed more thoroughly at the time.  Most graves in Appalachia, especially if they are more than 40 or 50 years old, nearly always face the rising sun due to the belief that the resurrection will happen in the early morning at or near sunrise.  This positioning of the graves is intended to guarantee that the people interred will be oriented toward the coming Jesus in order to be one of the first to rise from the grave. The relocated cemeteries almost never made a point of facing graves toward the rising sun and usually located the orientation in the manner most likely to maximize the use of the land.  This point alone would be upsetting to descendants of the dead who had been raised to practice this religious based custom. 

Whenever I discuss the issues of death and burial in Appalachia, I generally refer to two books: "Death And Dying In Central Appalachia" by James K. Crissman and "Coal Camp Kids" by Barbara Ford Ritch.  "Faith And Meaning In The Southern Uplands" by Loyal Jones, whose work I often mention, also contains material pertinent to this discussion. The Crissman book is a somewhat dated but classic discussion of nearly every aspect of death and dying in Appalachia. It is in every way a masterpiece.  The Ritch book is a large oral history of the coal camps on Beaver Creek in Floyd County Kentucky which contains a large chapter on death, dying, and burial customs which contains many vintage photographs of graves, tomb stones, caskets, and dead bodies.  It is somewhat deficient in expository writing but the photos and first person transcriptions are quite informative.  For those readers who are interested in further information on the topic of death in Appalachia, I would also refer you to any or all available copies of "The Minutes" of any of the various associations of the Old Regular Baptist Church in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and several of the northern states affected by the Great Migration.  Individual obituaries are generally contained in most associations minutes and are written by either ministers or family members who knew the deceased individuals.  Although they may appear to follow a stock and rather staid format, individual obituaries may contain real gems of cultural information and these gems may often be found only by browsing dozens of "Minutes".  I refer to one such obituary in my post on "Visiting The Urban Appalachians In Kendallville Indiana".  Although I have never done research there, it is my understanding that the University of Pikeville library in Pikeville Kentucky has a nearly complete collection of these minutes from several of the associations.  Each of these "Minutes" is an annual report of events in a particular association of Old Regular Baptist Churches and, in addition to the obituaries, contains statistical reports of the churches.  They are a wealth of information for researchers and the simply curious in Appalachia.  In particular, the statistics are often far more complete than other enumerations of any kind at the same time in Appalachia. 

There have also been numerous cultural collisions between coal and other mineral extraction companies and the local populace concerning attempts to relocate cemeteries in order to facilitate strip mines, oil wells, gas wells, and rock quarries.  One such battle is currently ongoing at Carcassone in Letcher County Kentucky.  I have no direct personal knowledge of the conflict other than what I have seen in the media. But a local couple whose family members are buried on a small, mountaintop cemetery are involved in an ongoing battle with a coal company which wants to move the cemetery more than twenty miles away, which is a massive distance by Appalachian mountain standards.  Newspaper accounts can be found at the Mountain Eagle , the local newspaper in Whitesburg, KY. I will attempt to directly contact the people involved in the conflict and gain more information which is certainly pertinent to this discussion.

This article will not be complete until I have managed to interview at least a couple of the cemetery managers involved about policies and procedures involved in the relocation of these graves.  I will also try to take the time to do some research in the Floyd, Rowan, and Johnson County Kentucky Libraries and newspaper morgues from the time period involved in the construction of Dewey Lake and Paintsville Lake in order to search for information about current events and opinions at the time the lakes were created.  Please feel free to insert your own personal information about this process and to make suggestions of ways to obtain more accurate information about the processes involved.  I would also love to interview any former employees who may have worked in the relocations. 

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