Virginia

Activists Say Road Construction is Encroaching on Slave Cemetery in Virginia

Loudoun-Slave-Cemetery-26-022916_edit-2-1-800x445

Outside of Washington, D.C., construction on a new interchange is encroaching on a marked slave cemetery. Residents in Loudoun County, Virginia, are worried about the new construction  on the interchange between Belmont Ridge Road and Route 7. These residents have been restoring and protecting the cemetery as an integral part of Loudoun County's history. 

Pastor Michelle Thomas of the Loudoun Freedom Center is one of the cemetery's biggest advocates. The mission of the Center is to "eliminate injustice and engender hope, understanding, and reconciliation . . . as it relates to the lives & contributions of the enslaved . . . who may be buried throughout Loudoun County." Thomas and residents in the area discovered that the construction moved the cemetery's fence line, and some digging had occured. 

In the course of construction, trees that protect marked and unmarked graves were removed. These trees protect the cemetery from erosion and vandalism. Virginia Code §18.2-127 makes purposeful destruction of cemeteries and burial grounds a criminal act. It is even a felony to destroy or damage marked gravestones. These statutes do give the residents of Loudoun County and the Center a legal remedy for any damages to the cemetery, but would essentially require a neighborhood watch after the removal of the trees. 

Although a spokesman for the county assured residents that the cemetery will remain undisturbed, residents are still worried. The County promises to monitor the area for those trying to disturb the remains, but the nearby residents are remaining vigilent. These guardians of the slave cemetery wish to ensure that the dignity and respect they've worked so hard to restore remains intact.

Amelia Lowe


Cemetery Tourist: The Complicated History of The Lee/Custis Estate and Arlington National Cemetery

I visited Arlington National Cemetery this weekend.  It was a beautiful day but I cannot help but think about the complicated history of the place when I visit there.  The following text is excerpted from How Arlington National Cemetery Came to Be, by Robert M. Poole in Smithsonian Magazine with photographs from my recent visit.  The first photograph is taken from the front yard of the Arlington House looking across the Potomac to the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol Building.  It was strategic high ground that the Union Army could not allow to remain in the hands of the general of Army of Northern Virginia—Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Custis Lee, the step-great-granddaughter/adopted granddaughter of George Washington.
 
DSC03076"One afternoon in May 1861, a young Union Army officer went rushing into the mansion that commanded the hills across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. 'You must pack up all you value immediately and send it off in the morning,' Lt. Orton Williams told Mary Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee, who was away mobilizing Virginia's military forces as the country hurtled toward the bloodiest war in its history.
 
Mary Lee dreaded the thought of abandoning Arlington, the 1,100-acre estate she had inherited from her father, George Washington Parke Custis, upon his death in 1857. Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington, had been adopted by George Washington when Custis' father died in 1781. Beginning in 1802, as the new nation's capital took form across the river, Custis started building Arlington, his showplace mansion. Probably modeled after the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, the columned house floated among the Virginia hills as if it had been there forever, peering down upon the half-finished capital at its feet. When Custis died, Arlington passed to Mary Lee, his only surviving child, who had grown up, married and raised seven children and buried her parents there. In correspondence, her husband referred to the place as "our dear home," the spot "where my attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world." If possible, his wife felt an even stronger attachment to the property. ...
 

Once the war began, Arlington was easily won. But then it became the prize in a legal and bureaucratic battle that would continue long after the guns fell silent at Appomattox in 1865. The federal government was still wrestling the Lee family for control of the property in 1882, by which time it had been transformed into Arlington National Cemetery, the nation's most hallowed ground. ...

Continue reading "Cemetery Tourist: The Complicated History of The Lee/Custis Estate and Arlington National Cemetery" »


Home Funerals, Rent-Seeking, and Religious Liberty

The death of a family member triggers a flurry of decisions, all of which must be made in a time of great emotional stress. At the center of the decisions is a single question—how should the dead be mourned and memorialized? The “right” answer can vary significantly based on religious beliefs, family politics, social norms, and the economic capacity of the family.

Many families are relieved to be able to hire a funeral director to take care of all of the practical details, but there is a growing interest in “home funerals,” in which human remains are prepared for disposition in the home, rather than at the funeral parlor. As described in a recent New York Times article, remains may be washed and dressed by family, members of a religious community, or a funeral director. Surrendering control of the corpse to a funeral director immediately after death, allowing it to be embalmed, and displaying it in an open casket is often referred to as the “traditional” American funeral, but in fact that has only been the “tradition” for a little over a century. Until the end of the 19th century, most American funerals were home funerals.

Families may choose home funerals for many reasons. For some, ritually preparing human remains for burial has significant religious implications. For others, it is a last meaningful act of love.  For too many, the “traditional” American funeral, which averages $8,500 plus the cost of the burial plot, is simply beyond their means.

Throughout the world, home funerals are routine and accepted. In the United States, a country that prides itself on religious liberty and the freedom of self-expression, the growing interest in home funerals represents a challenge to the commercial funeral industry. That industry has responded as economics expect, by engaging in classic “rent seeking” behavior and lobbying state legislatures to enact restrictive laws that insulate it from competition. In the case of home funerals, the competition comes from families themselves.

Sixteen states require that human remains be embalmed or refrigerated within a particular time period after death (usually 24-48 hours). (Those states are: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia.) Four of those states (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas) require that human remains be refrigerated below a particular temperature (typically 35-40 degrees). Virginia already requires that human remains be embalmed or refrigerated within 48 hours after death. Virginia State Senator Kenneth Alexander, a funeral director, has proposed Senate Bill 595 to specify that the remains must be refrigerated at a temperature of no more than 40 degrees. This bill has been received with appropriate outrage by funeral consumer advocates and some funeral directors.

Legal requirements that human remains must be embalmed or refrigerated after death are classic examples of industry rent-seeking.  By requiring “refrigeration,” particularly at a specific temperature, rather than simply permitting cooling via dry ice or other means, these states place heavy burdens on families and religious communities that want to care for remains at home.

On the surface, these requirements seem reasonable. Aren’t human remains a health hazard? Don’t these laws prevent public health nightmares? Actually, it turns out, unembalmed and unrefrigerated human remains don’t pose significant public health risks. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that “[t]here is no direct risk of contagion or infectious disease from being near human remains for people who are not directly involved … handling dead bodies.”  The CDC further advises that those directly handling human remains can protect themselves from potential bacteria and viruses by wearing gloves and washing their hands. “The sight and smell of decay are unpleasant,” the CDC advises, “but they do not create a public health hazard.” The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees. “The widespread belief that corpses pose a major health risk is inaccurate. Especially if death resulted from trauma, bodies are very unlikely to cause outbreaks of diseases…”  The WHO also advises that “[d]ead or decayed human bodies do not generally create a serious health hazard, unless they are polluting sources of drinking-water…” The Association Française d'Information Funéraire advises that there are three methods for preserving human remains before final disposition: dry ice, refrigeration, and embalming. The use of dry ice is the “common traditional technique for preservation at home,” the Association reports, and “[i]t gives perfect results in 95% of the cases.”

In a 2009 article, author Max Alexander contrasted the home funeral of his father-in-law and the “traditional” funeral of his father. “Home after-death care is not for everyone or every situation,” Alexander acknowledged, “[but it] occurred to me that if more Americans spent more time with their dead … they would come away with a new respect for life.” In the United States, of all places on earth, families should be able to make the choice of how to care for their own dead without the interference of laws designed to protect no one but a for-profit industry.

Tanya D. Marsh


Preneed Services in Virginia: Where Should the Money Go?

A woman in Richmond, Virginia prepaid over $6,600 for preneed funeral services, which were to include the visitation, chapel, limo, and her burial plot. In a very unfortunate turn of events, the funeral home went out of business when the owner passed away without a designated licensee. More unfortunately, the woman has been unsuccessful in obtaining a refund from the widow or the decedent owner’s estate. This begs the question: can a funeral home in Virginia legally take prepayments for funeral services and put these payments towards other needs, like general operating costs?

Legally, no. Virginia Code § 54.1-2822(A) states that funds received under preneed contracts, unless towards an insurance policy or annuity contract, are to be deposited “in a special account in a bank or savings institution doing business” in Virginia. Further, such funds must be “deposited in separate, identifiable trust accounts setting forth the names of the depositor, the trustee for the person who is the subject of the contract, the name of the person who will render the funeral services and the name of the person who is the subject of the contract.” Va. Code § 54.1-2822(B). Additionally, how the funds are to be held – in trust, insurance, or annuity – needs to be disclosed in the preneed contract. See Virginia Code § 54.1-2820(A)(5), (C). Therefore, the reporters of the situation are correct when they state that this woman’s only remedy may be in the civil courts. If the contract does not state how her funds were to be held, and if the funds weren’t properly deposited and held, the funeral home has broken Virginia law.

Anastasia Fanning