By: John L. Kiener, General Session Judge, Washington County
The by-laws of the Jonesborough Genealogical Society provide: “Cemetery update: Responsible for updating Washington County, Tennessee Tombstone Inscriptions and the books for nearby counties and for copying cemeteries which were missed.” James Dykes and Elaine Cantrell are in charge of this project.
James is a Washington County native; in his fourth year of medical school at the James Quillen College of Medicine, specializing in Internal Medicine. He contributed a great deal to the book on Jacob Brown, Wagonmaker, and was the Editor of the topical history portion of the Washington County, Tennessee History, by the Watauga Genealogists (WAGS). Dykes has been an officer of WAGS for several years and is currently its vice-chairman.
Elaine Cantrell is a native of Washington County, the daughter of Ralph and Selma Bowman Scott. Elaine has worked for Burlington Industries as an administrative assistant since 1945, has catered and directed weddings for several years, and is secretary of WAGS. Mrs. Cantrell was married to James Cantrell, now deceased, and is the mother of two sons. She has one grandson.
To illustrate the amount of knowledge available to the Jonesborough Genealogical Society in its cemetery project, I should also introduce you to Loraine Rae. Loraine is a Washington County native, daughter of well-known local genealogist, Charles Bennett. She was educated at Wake Forest, Appalachian State and Georgia State; is a systems analyst with IBM; taught high school math, technical college math and computer courses, and university management and information system courses as Associate Professor, Business Administration, Middle Tennessee State University. Loraine retired from college teaching and returned to Jonesborough where she “inherited” her father’s genealogical work. Loraine compiled and published the three volume Washington County, Tennessee Tombstone Inscriptions in her father’s name. Her latest genealogical work – abstracts of Washington County deeds, 1775-1800, is at the publishers now. She also compiled abstracts Washington County Court records for the WAGS Bulletin; she has one son living in Portland, Oregon.
With this kind of talent available, you can see why we want to know the location of every cemetery in Washington County. The Jonesborough Genealogical Society is attempting to update every cemetery listing and to prepare a map of all cemetery locations. But we need your help! The project leaders tell me not to worry if the gravestone inscriptions cannot be read. If they know of a cemetery location, they will use the resources of the Society to attempt to determine the names of the persons buried there.
On occasion we need to remind the public of Tennessee’s cemetery laws. In Tennessee, the Legislature has passed a law in which: “The general assembly recognizes that the operation of a cemetery is a public purpose and further recognizes that the proper maintenance of a cemetery or burial grounds, whether private or public, is in the interest of the public health and safety serving a valid public purpose.” In this regard, the law states: “A trust created for the perpetual care or improvement of a cemetery or graves lessens the burden of government, and, therefore, is found and declared to be a charitable trust.”
With a cemetery declared in this respect, charitable and for a public purpose, a definition of cemetery from Tennessee law provides: “Cemetery means any land or structure in this state dedicated to and used, or intended to be used, for interment of human beings.” Besides cemeteries operated by a “cemetery company” Tennessee law recognizes that cemeteries may be: 1. . . . owned by municipalities; 2. . . by churches, associations of churches, or church organizations; 3 . . . by religious organizations; 4. . . . family burial grounds; and 5. . . Cemeteries owned by general welfare corporations created by special act of the general assembly; provided such cemeteries are not operated for profit . . .”
It is a Class A misdemeanor (11 months, 29 days in jail – up to $2,500 fine) to desecrate a place of worship or burial – see Tennessee Code Section 37-17-311. It is a Class E felony (one to six years in jail – $3,000 fine) to, without legal privilege, knowingly to “(1) Physically mistreat(s) a corpse in a manner offensive to the sensibilities of an ordinary person; (2) Disinter(s) a corpse that has been buried or otherwise interred; or (3) Dispose(s) of a corpse in a manner known to be a violation of law. “The reference to this law is T.C.A. Section 39-17-312. Sections 39-17-311 and 312 are very recent laws having been enacted in 1989 as part of Tennessee’s revision of the Criminal Code.
Another Class E felony is contained in Section 46-2-105 of the Tennessee Code dealing with trespass or injury to cemetery property and interference with processions or religious exercises. The law reads as follows: “No person shall willfully destroy, deface, or injure any monument, tomb, gravestone, or other structure placed in the cemetery, or any roadway, walk, fence or enclosure in or around the same, or injure any tree, plant or shrub therein, or hunt or shoot therein, play at any game or amusement therein, or loiter for lascivious or lewd purposes therein, or interfere by words or actions, with any funeral procession or any religious exercises.”
Won’t you help the Jonesborough Genealogical Society with its cemetery project? Also, please report any violation of the law as set out in this review of cemetery law, to Sheriff Ron England.
Your assistance in this effort is truly appreciated by members of the Jonesborough Genealogical Society, law enforcement authorities, and the public. And a map locating all cemeteries of whatever kind in the county will be real assistance to those engaging in genealogical research in Washington County.