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Out of time and out of space: Chapel Hill's cemeteries are at capacity

Graves in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery.
Graves in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery.

Louanne Watley was born in Danville, Ky., but considers Chapel Hill her home. She graduated from Duke University, taught nursing at UNC and opened her own yarn shop in town. Although her life is in Chapel Hill, her afterlife may be a different story. 

Watley’s name is on a waiting list for a plot in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery. She is one of many looking to secure a final resting place in her hometown cemetery. 

“The Old Chapel Hill Cemetery is the ideal place for me,” Watley said. “It’s close to home, it’s got trees and shrubbery and I won’t be laid between two people I don’t know.”

But that perfect spot may not exist anymore.

Chapel Hill’s four public cemeteries are out of space. Now, Watley and other Chapel Hill residents are being forced to look outside their hometown for a new ideal plot.

Dwindling space

Chapel Hill operates four public cemeteries — the two most accessible being the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery on UNC’s campus and the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery off Highway 15-501. 

In 1798, a UNC student was the first to be buried in the Old Cemetery. It now holds roughly 1,600 graves. 

Memorial Cemetery, built in the 1940s to increase Chapel Hill’s cemetery space, has since grown to capacity with over 3,600 people interred. 

But the plan for Memorial Cemetery was much bigger.

Adjacent to the lot sits a nine-acre plot that, in 2013, the Chapel Hill Cemeteries Advisory Board petitioned for a cemetery expansion. The town council voted instead to sell the land to DHIC Inc., a nonprofit organization that builds affordable apartments. Plans for construction were approved in October.

With this sale, the last available space in Chapel Hill for cemeteries vanished.

“I think that that was the town’s way of getting out of the cemetery business,” said Jeff Walker, the director of Walker’s Funeral Home on Franklin Street.

Walker’s Funeral Home has served the Chapel Hill community since 1922. Walker said he’s never heard of a town running out of cemetery space. 

Without the space to expand, the Memorial Cemetery has reached its limit of traditional burial plots — a fact Steve Moore, former member of the Cemeteries Advisory Board, said is difficult to explain to older generations.

“People have to tell their grandma, who has lived here for 86 years, that she can’t be buried in her hometown?" Moore said. "That doesn’t seem right.”

But this lack of space isn’t only because the town ran out of land. Poor record-keeping over the years has led to confusion surrounding ownership of space in West Chapel Hill Cemetery. 

The original plan for the cemetery off Jay Street allowed for 4,200 burials. But today, much of the land has been built over, leaving only 37 fully marked graves and 66 unmarked. Archeologists believe there may be an additional 96 interments but cannot be certain. 

The rest of the land may be owned by people who wanted to be buried there — but without official records, there's no way to know, leaving the plots unclaimed but untouchable. 

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“We don’t know who owns anything out there, because I have hardly any records for that cemetery,” said Debra Lane, an administrative assistant for Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation. “So unless someone shows up with some very old documentation, I can’t do anything with that land.” 

Lane said West Chapel Hill Cemetery is unique because the town cannot account for the empty space. Had better records been kept, Lane said the town might have been able to do something with the thousands of remaining plots.

“It was a decision by the town to just stop selling plots out there and shut it down," she said. "It’s just easier.”

Few alternatives

Though the town has no more plots for sale, individual owners or families with spare plots can resell their space. In Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, families can sell their plots for any price they choose.

“They can sell it for $1 million if they want to,” Lane said. “And who knows, they might get it.”

Plots in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery have been sold for as much as $10,000. But with spaces in high demand, prices may continue to rise.

Walker said high prices and a lack of space are resulting in fewer traditional burials. Cremation now accounts for more than half of his business, he said. 

Younger generations consider cremation and green burials to be more environmentally friendly, Walker said.

Lane said the lack of plots is especially jarring to Chapel Hill residents because of the town’s traditional values.

“I think it’s the way we were raised — casket, vault, traditional," she said. "I think a lot of families don’t want to be cremated.”

But this mindset means residents will have to sacrifice a final location in their hometown.

“If you don’t want a cremation or columbarium, then there are no spaces left for you,” Lane said. “In that case, you’d have to start looking at private or church cemeteries.”

During the town’s last public hearing in June, Jim Orr, director of Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation, proposed a solution to the town's problem — a columbarium.

“A columbarium is considered a vault with various sizes, dimensions and styles that hold compartments that could contain up to two urns containing ashes of the deceased,” Orr said.

Ninety-six spaces for urns would be added using this design, at a price of $100,000. To offset the construction costs, council member Michael Parker estimated each space would cost around $1,000 — almost three times the current cremation burial price of $350. 

Orr said Orange County officials are researching alternate options, including a scatter garden in Memorial Cemetery that would allow people to spread ashes in an open field. Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said Chapel Hill is simply no longer an option for casket burials. 

“If people want to be buried in a casket, they would have to choose to be outside of Chapel Hill," Hemminger said.

'It matters where you're buried'

Watley knows her chances of getting her ideal burial plot in Chapel Hill are slim, but she said there's nothing to do but keep waiting. 

"It matters where you're buried," she said. "When people go places, they visit the cemeteries. So it matters to me where I'm buried." 

During her nine years working with the cemeteries, Lane said she’s come to respect their history.

“Everybody is buried there — Jews, Muslims, slaves, famous people, everybody. And we see people buried in all kinds of traditional, cultural celebrations,” Lane said. “It’s unique for an older, southern cemetery. But that’s Chapel Hill for you.”

That rich history comes as individual families honor their loved ones’ final wishes. These plans are made behind closed doors in the comfort of a family’s home. But now this conversation has gone public, as the town decides how families from this point forward will get to honor their dead.

Walker said this is not an easy conversation to have, but it is important when preserving the town’s history and values.

“If we forget our past, we’re doomed in our future,” Walker said. “You can tell a lot about a town, about a society, by the way they treat their dead.”