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County toughens protection of graves
Finds must be reported quickly
This grave was relocated to Sawnee View Memorial Gardens in 2006. A home was then built next to the site in the Legends at Settingdown Creek subdivision. - photo by Submitted
Some say one of the roles of government is to protect the rights of its people.

Forsyth County passed an ordinance earlier this week that extends those rights beyond the grave.

The county commission voted 5-0 to approve a law that preserves abandoned or neglected cemeteries.

The ordinance requires that anyone who finds a graveyard, or something resembling one, must notify law enforcement and the county.

It also strengthens current laws against destroying or defacing a graveyard, and requires a permit to remove human remains.

Members of the Historical Society of Forsyth County were instrumental in pressing the issue. The group’s co-president, Martha McConnell, said the measure will “better protect these sites.”

McConnell said there are about 50 church cemeteries in the county and just as many family cemeteries. And there likely are many burial plots and grounds yet to be discovered.

“We get calls all the time,” she said. “People asking us to come look at something they found. Something that looks like a grave.”

Often, she said, these sites are discovered by those clearing land for a home.

One such case occurred in 2004, when a landowner found a tombstone on his northwestern Forsyth property. The grave dated back to 1861.

Much of the momentum for the new law stemmed from this case, McConnell said.

Commissioners denied the man permission to move the grave, but he later filed a lawsuit against the county to exhume the remains and build anyway.

He won the lawsuit and the remains were moved to Sawnee View Memorial Gardens.

The problem, according to McConnell, was that genealogical records showed not one person but four buried on the plot, which is off Heardsville Circle in the Legends at Settingdown Creek subdivision.

“The families told us there were four graves there, but by the time this man bought the property and was wanting to build there, there was only one grave [marker] there,” McConnell said. “There had been a lot of grading done.”

She said the man later sold the home.

According to historical society co-president Jimmy McConnell, the former site of the grave sits “basically right outside someone’s basement door.”

“They know about it,” Jimmy McConnell said. “I made [the new homeowners] aware of it. It was apparently not disclosed in the sale.”

The new law anticipates similar scenarios. County Attorney Ken Jarard said it contains “a presumption of allowing remains to stay where they are.”

State laws protect such sites, but Jarrard said localizing the matter “puts some teeth to the notion that if you come across a burial ground, you have to stop. You need to report it.”

Given the county’s history of rapid development, Jarrard said he suspects “there’s a lot of burial grounds in the county that are not documented or marked.”

Martha McConnell agreed.

“I’m sure there are still some out there,” she said. “... If anything should be found in the future, this [ordinance] will really help.”

She said in the last couple of years, though, developers have “gone out of their way to protect and preserve” the cemeteries they’ve come upon when grading an area.

Jimmy McConnell said these cemeteries are important as “a historical resource ... and they’re meant to be a final resting place.”

E-mail Frank Reddy at