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For Memorial Day

May 23, 2014


The most expensive real estate in Spartanburg County rarely changes hands once the property is occupied.  These small tracts of land are cemetery plots.  I often teased a friend of mine who was employed by a local cemetery that he ran his business into the ground.  Just after Easter, fifteen or more years ago, he made me an offer too good to refuse.  The cemetery was planning to develop a new section.

“We’re running a special for a limited time only,” he said.  “I’ll sell you two cemetery plots for the price of one.”

I talked with my dad, who always kept an eye out for a good land deal.  Each of us purchased two plots in acreage still undeveloped.

Several years later, my friend called again.  “We’ve exhumed a body that is to be reburied in Tennessee.  Four adjoining cemetery lots are available near the graves of your grandfather and grandmother.  If you and your dad would like to have them, we’ll swap even.”

Occasionally this expensive real estate does change hands.  My dad and I both agreed to accept the offer.  My mother had qualms about being buried in a previously occupied plot, so Dad and I decided that she and Clare could have the new ground.  One of us would gladly accept the used grave as our final resting place.  The story may sound strange, even irreverent, to some.

Two observations strike me as both odd and appropriate.  Cemeteries have become popular places to walk.  A cemetery is certainly a peaceful place to exercise for good health.  Perhaps striding past the graves of the deceased provides motivation to walk more briskly.

Cemeteries are also a good place for student drivers to learn skills.  While negotiating the circular loop around multiple graves hardly prepares teenagers for interstate driving, it is a relatively safe place to master the skill of maneuvering an automobile along narrow roadways.    Perhaps the setting serves as a good reminder that driving can be hazardous.

Since funerals are a regular part of pastoral duties, I spend a good bit of time in cemeteries. After forty-seven years of ministry, the last twenty-seven in the Spartanburg, I have spoken words of committal in burial grounds all across the Carolinas. From green mountain graveyards in Cherokee, Weaverville, and Spruce Pine, to quiet country churchyards in Anderson, Rock Hill, and Hartsville, I have stood with grieving families saying goodbye to loved ones.

I usually linger a few moments, reading the names and epitaphs on the tombstones in each place. At Fishing Creek Presbyterian Church in Chester County, I found a graveyard filled with Neelys. At Nazareth Presbyterian Church on the Tyger River, a part of Spartanburg County’s history is etched in stone.

In 1985, Emory Tucker rode with me to find a cemetery at the base of Short Mountain near Fosterville, Tennessee. Emory’s grandfather and grandmother were buried in a small family cemetery that had been untended for years. On a gravel road, we crossed a railroad track and stopped at the gate in a barbed wire fence. The enclosed land, which once had been a pasture, was overgrown with high weeds.

Eighty-eight-year-old Emory, who walked with a cane, remained at the car. After climbing the fence, I used a big stout stick to clear my path and fight my way through the weeds and insects, toward a grove of oak trees two hundred yards away. I discovered among the tangled mass of bramble briars and poison ivy the graves of Emory’s grandparents who were my great, great grandparents. Since that time, that very special cemetery has been reclaimed, fenced, and properly maintained.

Just past Mary Black Hospital, near where Skylyn Drive becomes Cannons Camp Ground Road, are two cemeteries:  Sunset Memorial Gardens on the right and Lincoln Memorial Gardens on the left.  During my thirty-three years as a minister in Spartanburg, I have conducted many funerals at Sunset, but never one at Lincoln.

These two tracts of land, which are in close proximity to each other, reflect the segregation of this community along the racial lines of times past.  They remind us of a time when schools, lunch counters, restrooms, and even water fountains were symbols of discrimination.  Other than Sunday morning worship in most of our churches, hardly any other facet of our community remains so segregated.

On a recent sunny afternoon, I drove into Lincoln Memorial Gardens and walked among the markers, reading the names and dates of birth and death of those buried there.  Most of those buried there are African-Americans. On the surface, the granite markers look exactly like the tombstones of my deceased loved ones.  Noticing that some of the deceased were born soon after the Civil War, I tried to imagine the discrimination they encountered.

The back road of the Lincoln cemetery borders the Spartanburg Police Hunt Club.  Near that road is a large white marble image of Christ with his hands outstretched. The statue has been discolored, or maybe I should say colored, by time and the elements.  Beneath this Christ of color is an engraved scripture: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord…that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13).

On this Memorial Day weekend, I am reminded that all burying ground is holy ground. In every cemetery, the tears of sweethearts, wives, and mothers, and those of fathers, sons, and daughters have watered the graves of fallen soldiers.

Eventually, every cemetery plot will be a used plot. The final resting place for everybody – red, yellow, black, or white – is precious. My prayer is that prejudice and discrimination will pass away and be laid to rest, not only in the life to come, but also in our life together this side of heaven.

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2013

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