When the Back Yard is a Graveyard

In Virginia, Developers Excavate an Unmarked Burial Ground.

Workers found remains just yards from this new house.

Credit: Saving Graves

When human remains were first found on a housing construction site in Hanover County, Va., two years ago, county officials assumed that a small family burial plot had been discovered, and a judge ruled that the remains be disinterred.

However, as time passed, contractors from Burruss Burial Vaults, who were hired for the task, continued to find unmarked graves at Pebble Creek in Mechanicsville, northeast of Richmond, and between February and April of this year, workers unearthed 215 graves. "The more they dug, the more they found," says deputy county administrator John Hodges.

A worker holds a bone fragment found in the Pebble Creek subdivision.

Credit: Saving Graves

According to Kathleen Kilpatrick, the county’s director of historical resources, evidence suggests that the 322-acre tract, which is already substantially developed with single-family houses ranging in price from $150,000 to $300,000, encompasses two adjacent cemeteries. One is the private plot of the Syndor family, and the other is an African-American burial ground that may have been in use as recently as the 1970s.

The county has not carried out any archaeological investigations to confirm the presence of two cemeteries, but Kilpatrick says community members were aware of their existence. "No one should be surprised at what they found. The oral history was there in the community," Kilpatrick says.

Yet last September, when developers placed an advertisement in the local paper calling for interested parties to come forward, no one responded. The discoveries have worried owners of nearby lots, who fear what may be hidden beneath their own new two-story houses. County officials say they had no idea so many bodies were buried there. "We are all concerned that a cemetery of this size was discovered after the property had been subdivided and building permits issued," Hodges says.

Investigating graves.

Credit: Saving Graves

Contractors found graves in two lots—previously fields belonging to farmer Oscar Via—which Mechanicsville-based developer PMG-One sold to builders Rock View Homes Inc. in 1999. Before the sale, two surveys of the two third-of-an-acre plots by a local funeral director, Joseph W. Bliley, failed to unearth any remains. Rock View Homes sued PMG-One, alleging fraud in the sale of the title. In a statement issued in February, PMG-One manager Todd Rogers said, "We have been as surprised as anyone about the extent of this discovery."

After the suit was settled out of court in February 2001, PMG-One applied to the Hanover County Circuit Court for permission to move the graves. Assuming that only a small number of graves was involved, the court authorized the remains to be moved, in accordance with Virginia law.

A white bone is visible in the middle of this photo.

Credit: Saving Graves

Burruss Burial Vaults has completed the disinterment, but some people in the community want adjacent land to be investigated. Hanover County resident Sheri Millikin believes that the African-American cemetery is still unaccounted for and may lie beneath houses or roads. "There is no doubt in my mind that the second graveyard in the Pebble Creek subdivision has not been found," says Millikin, who contends the site is "a final resting place" and should have remained so. "I don’t see how the court order can be considered fulfilled without the other graveyard being handled as well," she says.

Hodges admits that there may indeed be human remains on other lots, but he says that disinterment is now the responsibility of the individual property owner. "I’m not saying there are more gravesites, but according to the maps and aerial photographs we have studied, in the worst-case scenario there would be two lots affected," he says.

A Hanover County investigation has concluded that the graves’ existence was deliberately downplayed when Oscar Via sold the land to developers in 1995. A memo released in May from the county attorney to the county’s board of supervisors states: "It is obvious that at some time between January 6, 1967 and February 10, 1975, these gravesites were intentionally obscured and the land reclaimed for agricultural purposes." Via, who died earlier this year, owned the land since 1918.

Although workers have smoothed over the deep pits they excavated just yards from Pebble Creek houses, some homeowners cannot forget what they found in the red-clay dirt. "I know families who are quite disturbed," Millikin says, "And they have every right to be concerned and upset."  

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