‘Y’all didn’t give a damn’: Church, families argue over fence built around graves

When Beth Hatcher’s grandmother was widowed with eight children, the community, anchored by the Inwood Baptist Church off Lake Wheeler Road in south Raleigh, gathered around the family like a shield. The cemetery at The Point Church (formerly Inwood Baptist) is now surrounded by a wooden picket fence.
When Beth Hatcher’s grandmother was widowed with eight children, the community, anchored by the Inwood Baptist Church off Lake Wheeler Road in south Raleigh, gathered around the family like a shield. The cemetery at The Point Church (formerly Inwood Baptist) is now surrounded by a wooden picket fence. abennett@newsobserver.com

You once could see the well-groomed graveyard, more than a century old, from the road.

A few of its headstones have fallen, but fresh flowers still are placed on the graves.

But now a wooden picket fence about four feet tall surrounds the graveyard at the former Inwood Baptist Church on Lake Wheeler Road in Raleigh, now a member of The Point network of churches. And families of those interred there aren’t happy about it.

More than 50 people upset and angry about the fence showed up at the church for a meeting in late May.

And no one seemed convinced by church leaders’ reasons for the fence, including: children playing in the graveyard and getting hurt, vandalism of graves and the separation of the site from the church.

“This is the kind of fence you put up to hide junk cars!” someone in the crowd shouted.

“It almost seems like you’re trying to hide it, or you’re ashamed,” said Sharon Matthews, a former member of the church. “Some of us grew up in this church. Some of us were married in this church. Our families are buried here. And we weren’t consulted.”

“We don’t want a privacy fence,” said Fred Phillipi, Matthews’ father. “We don’t have anything to hide or be ashamed of. These are our loved ones.”

The Point Church merged with Inwood Baptist Church in 2015. Both church leaders and former members say Inwood had financial difficulties and membership was dwindling in the years leading to its decision to merge with The Point. The Point also has locations in Apex and Cary, and executive pastor Jeremy Hyde said the church plans to have 30 locations across the Triangle by 2025.

Those at the meeting last month were most concerned with plans for the graveyard. They wanted to know why the fence was erected, saying it hadn’t been needed in more than 100 years.

Hyde said the church is committed to protecting, caring for and improving the graveyard. The church plans to continue biweekly mowing of the graveyard, and is looking to implement regular upkeep schedules.

The church also plans to continue the Inwood practice of charging no fee for burial plots there and honoring plot allocations made previously and documented in church records.

‘We’re not monsters’

Miley A. Perry, whose ancestors gave the land that the church and graveyard stand on to the church in 1880 and 1887, and others have come together to hire attorneys to protest the fence and other decisions by The Point since it merged with Inwood.

Perry said he has tried to work with church leadership and been rebuffed.

“Y’all didn’t give a damn, and you’re going to do what you want regardless,” Perry said during the gathering he organized last month.

Church leaders said they were willing to work with those upset about the fence, including removing it and replacing it with another fence everyone can agree on – but they wouldn’t pay for it. That money would have to come from outside the church.

Many of those gathered in opposition to the fence laughed or snorted at that suggestion, commenting among themselves about how much of their time and money already had gone into the church over the years. They said that they weren’t consulted about the fence, that no effort had been made to contact the relatives of those buried in the graveyard.

Hyde said The Point had not tried to contact family members of the interred – but only because the church didn’t have accurate records and contact information, which several people argued wasn’t true. Hyde said the fence was discussed with former Inwood leadership during the merger.

“We’re not monsters here, folks,” Nick Karr said at the meeting. Karr is a member of The Point and an attorney. He helped moderate the meeting.

Matthews hushed a few angry voices in the crowd, saying that all that was left was for families to compromise with the church on the fence and make sure they’re included in the graveyard’s future.

“I know people are upset and angry, but we have to compromise,” she said. “It’s done. Now we have to work together.”

A few people asked Hyde and Karr whether they would seek a historic designation for the graveyard, given its age. Hyde said the church had no plans to do that, adding that he didn’t know what that process entails. Some in the crowd worried that a rejection of that suggestion meant the church had ulterior motives for the graveyard, which Hyde denied.

“We just want to protect the cemetery,” Hyde said.

‘An important place for us’

Wanda Todd has spent countless hours in the graveyard. Her son, Adam, is buried there. He lived only a short time, and he would have been 13 this year.

Todd said she doesn’t mind the fence – unlike others whose loved ones are buried there – but she had no idea the fence was going up, or what it might mean for the site. She pulled weeds from around her son’s headstone and straightened a nearby bench, and said she just wants to see it taken care of.

“I’ve spent so much time here,” Todd said. “All hours of the night. I’ve never had any problems. I just want to make sure nothing happens. We live a little ways away and don’t attend the church, but this is still an important place for us.”

Abbie Bennett: 919-836-5768; @AbbieRBennett

Cemetery laws

The Point does not have a formal policy for access to the graveyard property it owns other than what is required under state law and usually provides unrestricted access during the day for funeral, burial, visitation and remembrance purposes. Visitors can lay flowers and other items at graves. The church is considering formal policies for the graveyard, Karr said in an email.

Two sections of state statute regulate access to and maintenance of cemeteries on private property. A cemetery owned by a church is usually considered private property.

Any person related to a person buried in a cemetery, a person they designate, or anyone with special permission can enter private property to maintain or visit a grave.

Those people should try to get permission from the landowner, but if that permission cannot be obtained, they can petition the clerk of superior court of the county the grave is in to gain access to the grave. The clerk will issue an order allowing the person to enter the property if:

▪ There are reasonable grounds to believe the grave or abandoned cemetery is on the property and it is necessary to enter the private property to reach the grave or cemetery.

▪ The petitioner is a descendant of the deceased or the decedent’s designee or has “a legitimate historical, genealogical or governmental interest in the grave or cemetery.”

▪ The petitioner entering the private property would not unreasonably interfere with enjoyment of the property by the landowner.

The clerk can designate dates and daylight hours for access to the property or establish a route for entries and exits from the property.

For more information on N.C. cemetery law, go to archaeology.ncdcr.gov/programs/cemeteries.