Area church uses radar to locate unmarked graves

Kanapaha Presbyterian Church will use ground-penetrating radar to survey of sections of its historic cemetery to locate unmarked graves. The Ramsey’s plot is located within the church's cemetery.

Alex M. Sanchez/Correspondent
Published: Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 30, 2013 at 6:08 p.m.

Karen Kirkman first questioned the unmarked depressions in the ground at Kanapaha Presbyterian Church Cemetery on Easter Sunday. She’ll start getting her answers on All Hallows’ Eve.

In an effort spearheaded by Kirkman, president and historian of Historic Haile Homestead, the church raised more than $4,000 to pay for a ground-penetrating radar survey of large sections of the historic cemetery this week. The results of the survey will help the church locate unmarked graves and figure out exactly how much of the cemetery is open for new burials.

“Getting ground-penetrating radar done is probably the best we can do to identify available space,” Kirkman said.

Kirkman, who joined the congregation in late spring, was attending Easter sunrise service, which is held at the cemetery, when she noticed several rectangular depressions in the ground, all oriented east — toward the rising sun.

“With the dew on the grass, the sun coming this way,” she said, gesturing to the east. “You could just see that there were unmarked graves here.”

Behind a black-iron gate on Southwest 63rd Boulevard, which was once a stagecoach road, clusters of crumbling gray headstones mark the nearly 4-acre plot with deep woods on all sides.

It’s the picture of a classic graveyard, but it also is a key part of Gainesville’s early history.

Built as the churchyard for the original Kanapaha Presbyterian Church, the cemetery holds the remains of many members of the Haile family, namesakes of Haile Plantation, and other families who came from the Sea Islands of South Carolina to settle the land.

The oldest grave in the cemetery, that of John Chesnut Haile, is dated January 1867, but Kirkman thinks some of the unmarked graves could be even older.

“It’s possible that there are some Indian burials that are unmarked, as well as older burials,” she said.

The current church building, completed in 1886, is more than a mile to the southwest of the original site, but the church continues to maintain the cemetery and sell plots to congregation members.

Christopher Altes with Southeastern Archaeological Research Inc. will work with eight to 10 church volunteers to survey six large areas of the cemetery. The survey work began Wednesday and continues Thursday. Kirkman said she expects the results to be available in the following weeks.

The survey originally was set to cost a prohibitive $10,000. But Kirkman, who had worked with GPR projects before, had the idea to have volunteers from the congregation set up grid lines for the survey. That, along with excluding areas with established graves, brought the cost down to $4,289.

“When they came back with that quote, I knew we could raise the money,” Kirkman said.

Three members of the congregation donated $1,000 each to the project, and one couple donated $189. The rest is being pulled from the sale of cemetery plots.

Kirkman said there appears to be at least six unmarked graves in the cemetery, but the survey could reveal many more.

The Rev. Dawn Conti, pastor of Kanapaha Presbyterian, said that, while the survey certainly wasn’t intentionally planned for Halloween, it’s proximity to All Saints’ Day makes it a good way to celebrate those who have passed.

“It’s very serendipitous,” Conti said. “It’s a way to honor those who have been, those who are here and those who are yet to come.”

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