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May 29, 2016

Some of the stories in this week’s column will appear in the forthcoming book Splinters: Tales from the Lumberyard by Kirk H. Neely.

The most expensive real estate in Spartanburg County rarely changes hands once the property is occupied.  These small tracts of land are cemetery plots.  A friend of mine worked for a local cemetery.  I often teased 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 my dad and I decided that she and Clare could have the new ground and one of us would gladly accept the used grave as our final resting place.  Now that both mama and dad have gone to heaven, it is clear that the used grave will be mine.

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.

As student drivers, our children used the narrow roadways of a cemetery to master the skill of maneuvering an automobile.  While negotiating the circular loop around multiple graves hardly prepared our teenagers for interstate driving, it was relatively safe.  Perhaps the setting is a good reminder that driving can be hazardous.

I have spent a good bit of time in cemeteries. Funerals are a regular part of pastoral duties. After fifty years of ministry, the last thirty-six in the Spartanburg, I have spoken words of committal in burying 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 the 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 the history of Spartanburg County is etched in stone.

On a trip to middle Tennessee in 1985, Cousin Emory Tucker rode with me to find a cemetery at the base of Short Mountain near Fosterville, Tennessee. Emory’s grandfather and grandmother, my great-great-grandparents, 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 a barbed wire fence. The enclosed land had once been a pasture but was now overgrown with high weeds.

Eighty-eight-year-old Emory, who walked with a cane, remained at the car. Spreading the rusted barbed wire with my hands, I climbed through the fence. I searched the ground and found a big stout stick. Using it to clear my path, I made my way through the weeds and insects, toward a grove of oak trees some two hundred yards away. The grove was a tangled mass of bramble briars and poison ivy.

Wielding the stick, I fought my way into the grove. I hacked away, finally clearing a small spot of ground. I nearly stumbled. At my feet was a pile of bleached bones. After a moment of stunned disbelief, I identified the bones as the skeleton of a horse.

I caught my breath and rejoined the battle against vines and thorns. Then suddenly the stick hit something solid – a tombstone engraved with the name WEBB. I tried to shout the news of my discovery to Emory. Alas, he was not only lame, but also hard of hearing. Retracing my steps, I walked almost all the way back to the car before I could make him understand what I had uncovered.

“That’s it!” he said excitedly. “That’s the grave of Cousin Joe Webb. Grandpa and grandma are buried right next to him.”

Using the stick to separate the barbed wire, I helped Emory through the fence. I made my way back to the grove of trees. Emory followed at his own pace. Returning to Joe Webb’s marker, I continued my attack on the enemy of twisted vegetation. There were no other tombstones.

Exasperated, I jabbed the stick into the ground. The resulting sound was a clear thud. Using my hands to clear away several inches of earth, I found another stone, and another, and another. This was a true burying ground; even the grave markers were buried!

Clawing with my bare hands, I scraped the dirt away from each fallen stone. Like an eager archeologist, I uncovered the names:  M. H. NEELY, N.A. NEELY, and W.M. NEELY.    I had discovered the graves of Emory’s grandparents, Major Hugh Neely and Nancy Aylor Neely. They were my great, great-grandparents. I had also found the grave of my great-grandfather, William Morgan Neely.

It was an unusual visit to a very special burying ground. The cemetery has since been reclaimed, fenced in, and is now properly maintained.

All burying ground is holy ground, a treasure to be preserved.

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

These two cemeteries reflect the segregation of this community along racial lines from times past.  While the two tracts of land are in close proximity to each other, 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.  I noticed that some were born soon after the Civil War and tried to imagine the discrimination they encountered.  On the surface, the granite markers in that cemetery look exactly like the tombstones of my deceased loved ones.

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, secluded private family plots nearly forgotten to Arlington National Cemetery, the graves of fallen soldiers have been watered by the tears of sweethearts, wives, and mothers; fathers, sons, and daughters.

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.

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