Grave matters: What happens if you have to move a grave?

Without a new location to rest in peace, a few Williamstown residents might have been lost forever to history under a major highway project.

When construction of Interstate 77 began in the 1950s and came into Williamstown, the small cemetery, the graves of the Bukey family and perhaps other pioneer residents, stood in its way.

Fewer than 10 gravesites were relocated to Riverview Cemetery on Waverly Road, said cemetery manager and funeral home owner Bill Peoples.

That gave Uriah, Lesikia and Drusilla a new resting place.

Moving cemeteries used to be a lot more commonplace, when a burial place was threatened by flooding or other natural disasters or when they got in the way of a new bridge, water facilities or other development. In the 19th century, it was done without much record keeping, if any. In some cases, the headstones were moved to safety, leaving the graves and remains to suffer whatever fate befell them. Nowadays, the process is much more controlled and regulated by governments, churches and historical groups.

Peoples, along with his wife, Pat, own Peoples Funeral Home and has managed Riverview Cemetery for about eight years.

He said moving a cemetery isn’t that difficult for those who have the right equipment and all the paperwork in place.

“Building reservoirs (and other public works), there would be little cemeteries needing to be moved,” Peoples said. “We don’t see that kind of thing anymore.”

Some people might surmise that a portion of Harmar Cemetery had been relocated because of construction of the Washington Street Bridge and Fort Harmar Drive in the 1950s.

But Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews had no recollection of the construction affecting Harmar Cemetery before or during the highway construction.

Moving that cemetery would be a very tedious project, to contact all the family members, many of whom might have been long gone and to get all the permits from the state, Matthews said.

Ernie Thode, former director of Washington County’s Local History and Genealogy Library, agrees.

“It may have been affected,” Thode said. “Or they might have worked around it.”

Moving a cemetery or even a few graves becomes necessary when development or disaster get in the way.

“When a cemetery encroaches on a state right-of-way, such as a state highway, ODOT contacts the county sheriff and coroner,” said David Rose, Ohio Department of Transportation District 10 communications manager. “We work with an archaeologist or undertaker. We uncover them, take photographs and take care of information. The township or municipality might donate some land in another cemetery and relocate the remains.”

When a person’s remains are moved, Rose said the same process is followed, however; all photos and information are kept at both sites. The sheriff or coroner also would notify the next of kin.

In Washington County, several cemeteries have been subjected to having graves moved.

The original Belpre cemetery, Cedarville, was at the end of today’s Cross Street (the neighborhood behind Domino’s Pizza on Washington Boulevard.) That area was home to evergreen trees, especially cedar, giving the area that name, according to “Williams History of Washington County, Ohio.”

The original settlers soon decided it was a mistake to establish a cemetery in the area along the bank of the Ohio River. The river started to eat away at the bank, sending many coffins afloat down the river.

“Most of the names of those washed away were never recorded,” said Charlotte Powell, secretary, curator and genealogist at the Belpre Historical Society Museum, 509 Ridge St.

Powell said the rest were moved to Rockland Cemetery, established in the 1820s, on Washington Boulevard for their permanent resting place. Some of the early settlers also have moved their ancestors from Cedarville to Rockland before they were threatened by the river erosion.

Local historian Kurt Ludwig, of Marietta, said the late Marietta College English Professor Dr. Owen Hawley, in his book, “Mound Cemetery of Marietta,” described at least three burial grounds – one under the current carriage house at American Legion Post, one at Third and Wooster streets and the last at Warren and Third streets that were outside the larger cemeteries: Mound, Oak Grove and Harmar.

Phill Crane, with the Lower Muskingum Historical Society, said he fears whole cemeteries might have been wiped out locally because of road construction and eminent domain, the practice in which local governments can take land for development.

That was true in the 1930s, when the Tennessee Valley Authority built dams for flood control and electricity, Thode said.