Prince William County, VA recently witnessed a heartwarming episode that ended in a charming example of public – private cooperation. Not too far from where I live the county is constructing a new high school that will feature all the modern conveniences for students: Olympic–size swimming pool, state of the art football field and hot–and–cold running grief counselors.
Plus it’s also a Gun Free Zone!
Last summer during preliminary construction a ground survey team discovered what appeared to be 10 to 12 abandoned graves in an overgrown portion of the site.* And making that discovery before the bulldozers arrived wasn’t easy. The plot was located in a remote area south of Manassas and covered by a tangle of third or fourth growth woods, making it impassable for vehicles and a tough slog on foot.
The graves weren’t marked with headstones, instead there were only rough fieldstones, without any inscriptions, and rectangular sunken areas in the ground. They concluded the site was an abandoned family cemetery that had not seen a burial in over 100 years.
Once the graves were discovered the school board contacted the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to obtain permission to disinter the remains. The board also followed the letter of the law and published a required legal notice in the Washington Post.
Since the high school was budgeted to be the most expensive in county history both proponents and opponents of construction had been following progress closely. After the graves were discovered the school board took the advice of community busybodies and contacted local historians to see if they could determine who was buried in the plot.
Researchers found the land had been owned by the Lynn family from approximately 1840 until the late 1890s when it was sold. Three of the graves have been identified as John Henry Lynn and his parents, William and Codelia (Keys) Lynn.
What’s more, Lynn family descendants still living in the county were surprised and gratified when the school board notified them of the discovery. After consulting with the board, Lynn representatives agreed to have the graves moved to a nearby site that would not interfere with construction.
At the conclusion of a brief, tasteful reburial ceremony Carolyn Lynn — ironically a local genealogy buff that writes a blog on Prince William County history — said, “I’m so impressed with the respect the school board demonstrated for my ancestors and my family. We had no idea there was a cemetery on the high school site and now not only do we know where the Lynns are buried, the new site is accessible and will be maintained by the county. I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Wow, I’m going to have to take my wife’s advice and stop smoking crack. It’s interfering with writing my column.
Of course that’s not what happened. This is 2014, not 1965. When notified of the discovery the Lynn family was outraged the school board found graves they hadn’t bothered to visit for a century!
How dare they! To make up for 100 years of disinterest family did everything but wrap their arms around the bone fragments and demand the high school be canceled. And the Lynns did it without the tiniest, most infinitesimal bit of embarrassment or gratitude, which is a way of life in the 21st Century.
Maybe it’s just me but if I’d lost the location of pee–paw’s mortal remains for the last 150 years, I’d be embarrassed if the county found him abandoned in an overgrown poison ivy preserve. I’d also be hoping the county wasn’t going to stick me with the bill for digging him up. As far as I’m concerned you buy the plot you buy grandpa, too. Besides, some bureaucrat might decide great grandpappy operated a ‘shine manufacturing business and declare the grave a Superfund site.
No one escapes that clean up bill. Just ask Monsanto.
But the Lynns didn’t feel the least bit chagrined as they went on the offensive.
Carolyn Lynn, the genealogist with the missing cemetery, at first said she was “elated” about the discovery of the family plot, but now she’s described as “disappointed and angry. [She] want[s] to know why Prince William school officials didn’t do more to accommodate the cemetery or notify area residents about plans to disinter the graves, a process that began on Veterans Day. When they were interred, that was their home. They expected to be there forever,” Lynn said of the 11 to 13 Lynn family members – including four small children — believed to be buried at the site. “Nobody thought somebody would build a football stadium over them.”
Well, yes and no. I’m also sure the dear departed didn’t figure someone in the family would take the money and run when outsiders offered to buy the plot.
On the board’s behalf, it could have been they figured if the Lynns didn’t care enough to visit the site sometime during the last century — or at least send an illegal with a weed–whacker by — why should the board jump through hoops for the family?
Other long–lost relatives took an even harder line. Derek Lynn wants the entire cemetery restored and all the vegetation and brush the Lynn family ignored for 100 years removed and the grounds restored at taxpayer expense. “These [people] spent their whole lives trying to improve the county, and now they’re out there trying to dig them up. … All we want is for the grave sites to be put back the way they were and left alone,” Lynn explained.
No word on whether or not Derek wants interpreters wearing period clothing onsite to explain the cemetery’s evolution from burial site to briar patch.
The modern Lynns would have no problem with the county paying between $3 and $9 million dollars (depending on how fast the process went) to return the remains to the original burial place and move the high school, but I certainly do. I suppose I should count taxpayers lucky that the final resolution of the problem saw the bodies reinterred at a spot on the site that is not in the construction zone. The initial tab for this solution is $30,000, but that doesn’t count continuing maintenance or the costs of previously running Prince William CSI as an archeology firm was hired, DNA was scanned and relatives tracked down.
After the dust had settled leave it to PWC School Board Chairman Milt Johns to miss the point. His hand–wringing statement was, “I hope that these steps will help to heal any wounds inflicted by the unexpected discovery of the cemetery and the process that followed. We are certainly very sorry for the dismay that resulted.”
Note to Milt: IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT, and statements like this only serve to encourage the hypersensitive.
The people that lived on the land were named Lynn; they knew the most about the deceased and possibly helped dig the graves. But evidently they didn’t give a damn about what happened after the land sold. If they cared about the future of the cemetery they could have added a deed restriction. So why should taxpayers have to pay for the Lynn family’s shabby treatment of their own relatives? And why do weak elected officials allow themselves to be buffaloed by the ‘feelings’ crowd?
If our sensitive, modern–day Lynns have a beef with anyone, it’s the ancestors who let the burial plot become a chigger playground. My suggestion is visit their graves, assuming you know where they are, and give them a piece of your mind.
*Facts and quotes contained in this column come from extensive reportage in The Washington Post, InsideNOVA, Northern VA Times and the Potomac Local News, to give attribution where attribution is due.