To Dig, or Not to Dig?

By Richard Merritt

The Rev. Paul Gerritson, pastor of the Mount Moriah Baptist Church, faced a troubling dilemma. The church has been located on the same plot of rural Orange County land for more 100 years. Since then, more than 400 church members had been buried in the cemetery behind the church.

Over time, many of the headstones have crumbled or their inscriptions have eroded. Some graves have only been marked by stones at the head and feet. Some don’t have any markers at all. And like most small churches, burial records, if they exist, are not always the most reliable, especially the older ones.

 “This is a problem common to small rural churches across North Carolina, many of which are even older than ours,” the Rev. Gerritson said. “Between the encroachment of nature around us and the lack documentation – especially for the older graves – it can be difficult to get an exact handle on who is buried where and their exact locations. It becomes a challenge when we have to dig a new grave.”

When an unmarked grave was almost breached while a new one was being dug, the pastor decided that something needed to be done. So he contacted Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to see if they could help.

David Schaad, Pratt associate professor of the practice and associate chair of civil and environmental engineering, jumped at the chance to not only help the Rev. Gerritson, but to provide a unique hands-on learning experience for students in his CE100 – Practical Methods in Civil Engineering class.

“Typically, students learning surveying techniques practice at locations across campus,” Schaad said. “I thought this would be a great opportunity for them to learn these same skills in a new and more real-world setting.”

The class was divided into six groups, each one responsible for a specific quadrant of the cemetery. Students spent the semester not only plotting the exact locations and orientations of every headstone and marker, but they recorded any information inscribed on them.

Aaron Schroeder, a junior from South Carolina, and Hunter Douglas, from New Zealand, were members of team surveying the southwest quadrant, which was densely populated with graves of many members of a small number of families, including a few which included babies.

“The campus has been surveyed so many times,” Schroeder said. “You can see groups of students out there all the time. This gave us the chance to practice the same skills in a totally different and more interesting setting.”

“It feels good to be able to help out the community while we’re actually learning something,” Douglas added.

As a result of the survey, the students identified 275 marked graves, and 144 unidentified graves. The earliest gravestones are dated 1877. The final product was a detailed map showing all the known headstones and markers, and where possible, the name of the person buried there.

Schaad is considering continuing the project by using ground penetrating radar to further identify grave sites. The space where a coffin is located will have a different density than the earth surrounding it, a difference that can be picked up by the equipment.

The church was organized in 1823 and has occupied the current site since 1903. For the Rev. Gerritson, pastor for the past several years, cemeteries serve important spiritual needs of a church’s parishioners – past, present and future.

“Not only does it represent the final resting place of the departed, but it also is a special place for the living to visit friends and loved ones,” he said. “It’s a place for quiet thought and reflection.

“To plan for future burials, it’s so important that we have a better handle on who is buried in our cemetery,” he continued. “The results of this project should be of great help to us.”

For more information about rural graveyards in North Carolina, visit this site.