“Attracting folks to the cemetery, to entertain them, as well as educate them is the perfect avenue for a town like Chapel Hill,” said Ernest Dollar, the Preservation Society’s executive director. “Chapel Hill is a Halloween town.”
Tours leave from the cemetery’s gazebo every 15 minutes beginning at 7 p.m. The first stop is in the African-American section of the cemetery at Nellie Strayhorn’s grave.
Along the way, Lucy Plummer Battle Cobb, buried with her newborn son, and Rachel Crook — the namesake of Crook’s Corner restaurant and victim of a brutal, unsolved murder — will tell the story of their deaths.
Not all the spirits met untimely ends. James Kern “Kay” Kyser died of heart failure in 1985 at the age of 80. He is included in the tour due to his fame as a Big Band leader of the 1930s and ’40s.
Though not much more is known about him or his death, Clarke is the earliest documented burial in the cemetery, said Felicia Lowrance, a 2010 UNC graduate and intern at the Preservation Society. Even less is known about others in the cemetery.
Lowrance and the Preservation Society are working to write a catalogue of the deceased, but many headstones are missing and many more are completely unmarked.
A ground-penetrating radar study of a small portion of the African-American section revealed more than 60 unmarked graves.
“We are going to be doing more of this type of survey in the future to get a better understanding of how many people are buried in this cemetery,” Lowrance said.
To help with the difficult task of identifying graves, the Preservation Society is collecting oral histories from the local African American community.
Both Dollar and production director John Paul Middlesworth said the evening’s event is respectful of the dead.
“It’s meant to be a little creepy, but fundamentally respectful of the people who are being recreated,” Middlesworth said. “The idea is to create a certain curiosity about the people buried in the cemetery and the people who have influenced Chapel Hill history.”
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