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Our coastal cemeteries are falling into the sea

A seaside cemetery in Salvo, N.C.
A seaside cemetery in Salvo, N.C. The Virginian-Pilot

A cemetery is a place of respect for the dead and its location is chosen with the expectation that it will be there for generations. Cemeteries in coastal areas were not located with the expectation that they would flood or fall into the sea. But most of the world’s ocean and estuarine shorelines are eroding — some slowly like California’s rocky coasts, and others rapidly like the Carolinas’ barrier island coasts.

Coastal cemeteries around the world are in imminent danger of falling into the sea and North Carolina is no exception. The settlers in Diamond City on Shackleford Banks left behind three small cemeteries when storms forced the community to relocate to the mainland in 1899. Only one of the three cemeteries still exists; the others fell victim to the sea. Similarly, the Portsmouth cemetery on Portsmouth Island is nearly completely lost; it is located on the back side of the island but now is in the marsh (evidence of the sea-level rise). At Rodanthe, the cemetery on the back side of the island also is threatened by erosion. In Sea Level, on the mainland shoreline, bones are washing out of a small cemetery.

The Outer Banks Salvo Cemetery is now in line for loss. However, an enthusiastic local community effort is underway to save the cemetery, and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has awarded Dare County a grant of $162,000 to build a bulkhead to "protect" the site.

On first consideration, preserving the Salvo Cemetery by a bulkhead seems reasonable, but in coming decades this temporary protection will lead to loss of the local beach. Bulkheads, like seawalls, enhance erosion in front of the wall and on adjacent shorelines, requiring an ever-lengthening and upward growing "protective" sea wall.

Assuming the community is willing to continue to pay for such extensive maintenance, or that the state will pony-up taxpayer funding after future hurricanes, with time, this cemetery will probably protrude into the sound like a mini-peninsula as the adjacent shorelines continue to erode back. With the rising sea, the next big storm with onshore winds from the sound will likely cause the loss of the cemetery, bulkhead or no bulkhead.

We know that this is an emotional issue for those with loved ones and even distant ancestors buried in the Salvo Cemetery. In choosing a bulkhead to preserve the cemetery, Salvo is repeating the mistakes of the lost islands of Chesapeake Bay that tried to stave off the sea, only to lose all.

We recommend that the Salvo Cemetery be moved. There is ample experience in moving cemeteries, for example, from the paths of new highways and other construction projects. Such is happening now in Hart Island, New York. In most cases, graves are moved to existing cemeteries where a large enough space is available to accommodate keeping the relocated graves together with a marker noting that this new site contains the graves from the former cemetery.

The location of a new Salvo cemetery should be on the mainland, well away from the sound/estuary shoreline, and on high ground. In some cases, obtaining property for a new cemetery site may be costly. However, overcoming this expense is preferable to the on-going cost of multiple shore-hardening structures with the shoreline loss continuing. If the goal is to preserve the Salvo Cemetery, the time to move is now. The proposed bulkhead will only delay the inevitable loss of the cemetery.

Orrin H. Pilkey is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Earth Science at Duke University. William J. Neal is professor Emeritus of Geology Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI.