Woman sues to visit grandparents' graves

Barred by landowner, she invokes law

Staff WriterMarch 9, 2006 

For as long as Rethea Carter Massey can remember, she has visited the grave sites of her grandparents in a pasture near Zebulon called Hopkins.

No slab or stone marks the spot, though Massey has a specific recollection of the site marked by a tall cedar tree and a rose bush.

"When I have an urge and stop by, I feel close to my ancestors," she said.

But when relatives began selling off the land a few years ago, Massey lost access to her sacred spot.

She got closer to her next visit this week when Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that Massey can have access to her kinfolk.

"If I could exaggerate the word exuberant, that's what it means to me," said Massey, 73, a retired office worker who lives in Wake County near Zebulon. "It means a great relief for something that I wanted a long, long time ago."

A person's right to visit a grave rests with N.C. General Statute 65-74 and 65-75, which also allows relatives and others to maintain and restore the grave. State law allows a county's clerk of court to rule on grave visitation and maintenance disputes as a special proceeding.

Massey's grandfather, Thomas Early Carter, died in 1935, when Massey was 3 years old. Mary Amanda Ferrell Carter, Massey's grandmother, died in 1922.

The Carters were buried at their home place, a family farm.

Raleigh police Detective Douglas A. Hoffman bought 12.8 acres of that land in 2001. He didn't know about the cemetery until months later, when Massey knocked on his door.

The two first clashed over her request to build a fence around the grave sites. She called his superiors at the police department.

Later the two came to an impasse about her visits.

So in 2004, Massey decided to sue for access to the grounds. That September, Massey wrote to Wake Clerk of Court Jan Pueschel in her own shaky handwriting to request a hearing.

Wendell lawyers C. Terrell Thomas Jr. and John W. Welch Jr. took the case for free and amended Massey's petition.

Last May, Pueschel signed an order allowing Massey to make hourlong visits on weekdays between 1 and 3 p.m., and on Easter, Mother's Day and Christmas. The ruling also allowed Massey to build a fence, erect one headstone and park in Hoffman's driveway during visits.

Massey said the fence was needed to keep Hoffman's horses from trampling or defecating on the site.

Hoffman appealed the clerk's decision. In court, his attorney, Ronald Garber, argued that because there was never a fence before, erecting one goes beyond restoration -- as the law states -- and could hamper Hoffman's efforts to sell the property one day.

Judge Hudson said he has never seen a case like this one and didn't know the law existed.

"The statute is clear," he said. "It's obviously an attempt to help people who have loved ones who were buried on other people's property, and it's designed to give them access to the burial grounds."

The judge hasn't signed a final order in the dispute.

"The devil's in the details," said Garber, who represents Hoffman. "Ruling in her favor is one thing, but the terms [of visitation and maintenance] are really the heart of the matter."

Still, Massey said she hopes that two rulings on her side will eventually lead to a fence to protect a piece of her family's history. She can't go back until there is a formal order in the case.

"I am a sentimental old fool -- and that's my prerogative," she said. "I don't want horses on my grandparents' graves. ... It's just desecrating the graves."

Massey said she hasn't been for a visit in more than a year.

"I'm sitting on go whenever," she said. "I can go by the road now and wave, 'Hey y'all.' "

Staff writer Cindy George can be reached at 829-4656 or cgeorge@newsobserver.com.

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