Church seeks to save cemetery

Published 9:47 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Macedonia Baptist Church member James Townsell shows how erosion has damaged the church’s cemetery.

Macedonia Baptist Church member James Townsell shows how erosion has damaged the church’s cemetery.

Time has taken its toll on Macedonia Baptist Church’s cemetery.

Ever so slowly, erosion has shifted the landscape of the 139-year-old Hobson church, forcing weathered graves to sink and leaving concrete burial vaults exposed. The sides of a ravine behind the cemetery have to be shored up to stave off additional erosion.

A handful of headstones, including older ones with names written by hand, have toppled over. More than 30 gravesites have illegible markers or no markers at all, although one mound of dirt is topped with sun-faded silk flowers.

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“It’s sad,” said Gladys Mills, who is spearheading a church committee’s efforts to restore the church cemetery. “It’s our responsibility.”

The group wants to galvanize the congregation, descendants of people buried there, community members and service organizations to raise $30,000 to build up the ravine, identify and mark unmarked graves, and repair the exposed and broken graves.

Based on two estimates, the excavation and ravine work will cost roughly $20,000, according to committee members James Townsell and John Thrower. Although she hasn’t gotten a formal estimate, Mills also has talked with an archeologist at The College of William and Mary about identifying the location of unmarked graves.

Macedonia can’t do it alone, said Townsell.

“Our church is small,” Mills said. “We have a congregation of about 50 members … and most of them are elderly and on fixed incomes.”

Thus far, the church has raised $3,390 with the crowdsourcing website, That’s particularly helpful, because it allows families who have left the area to contribute easily online, Mills said.

The church is also taking cash and check contributions for the cemetery restoration, Townsell said. All donations are tax-deductible.

Anyone who want to make a donation by mail should note that the contribution is for the cemetery project, Thrower said. The church’s mailing address is 8300 Crittenden Road, Suffolk, VA 23436.

Mills is adding all mailed donations to the GoFundMe site, so donors can keep up with total funds raised for the project.

“We’ve had donations from friends and colleagues as far away as Texas and California,” Mills said. “I’m surprised at how many people have already stepped up. Some don’t even have family buried here.”

Historically, Macedonia did not keep thorough records about where people were buried, Mills said. As part of the restoration, she plans to build and automate a graveyard database.

While fundraising efforts are under way, the church is tackling a community cemetery cleanup at 9 a.m. April 16. They are hoping to recruit church members, their families, community members and other organizations that would like to assist.

“Everyone is welcome,” Townsell said. Participants are asked to bring yard tools — rakes, pruners, chainsaws and shovels — to use for the project. The church will provide lunch.

“My goal is to have the cleanup done by Memorial Day, before people come back to pay their respects at their loved ones’ gravesites,” Mills said. “Once people and families see things happening, I think they will want to help.”

Mills also believes family members can help identify who is in at least some of the unmarked graves.

“We know there are graves there, but we don’t know who they belong to,” Mills said. “We’ve tried not to disturb anything.”