Amid a week filled with controversy, Brentwood residents hoping to relocate a small cemetery on their property dropped their petition after receiving opposition from the Brentwood Historic Commission.
Melissa Beckham and her husband, Robert, live on Brentwood’s north side on a property they bought in the spring of this year. Upon purchasing the land, the family knew about the small gravesite on the property and, as they hoped to build a house on the site, they wanted to move the cemetery to a different corner of the property.
“The initial reason why we started this process was I didn’t feel comfortable building on a property where we just aren’t sure how many graves are there,” Melissa Beckham said.
The former owner of the property, according to the Beckhams, told the prospective buyers the process for the relocation of the cemetery had been started, though no contracts or official documents had been signed. So, after the Beckhams bought the property, finishing this relocation was their plan, wanting to respect the families buried there by eliminating the possibility of coming across unmarked graves in the building process.
The couple went through the necessary steps — hiring an archeological project manager, inspecting the site, attempting to find descendants of those buried, publishing a notice to inform potential interested parties and filing a petition to move the cemetery — and all seemed to go according to plan until the Brentwood Historic Commission caught wind of the matter.
When the commission reviewed the couple’s petition, they immediately opposed the relocation. The 20-meter-by-30-meter graveyard held 11 marked graves and 13 virtually unmarked gravestones, the oldest of which dated to 1812, and the commission held that the “diligent inquiry” into the whereabouts of descendants quoted in the petition was insufficient.
A letter to the court from commission chairman Anne Goad explains, despite the petition’s report of finding no family members or interested parties, the board found 15 in two days. According to the commission, the cemetery, dubbed the “Mayfield Cemetery” as most of the marked headstones belong to the Mayfield family, should be left where it is out of respect for the early settlers.
“They should be allowed to remain where they chose to be buried, within the existing Mayfield Cemetery,” the letter reads. “They were the earliest pioneers, being the first non-Native American settlers, and held in the highest regard with Dr. Sutherland Mayfield being the personal physician to President Andrew Jackson.”
Melissa Beckham has since met with many of the descendants found by the commission. She said many of them were on board with her plan to relocate the graveyard, but some sided with the commission.
“My whole issue with this all along was it’s completely been abandoned by the city, the historical commission and the family,” she said. “I have met with quite a few family members, and … most of them were on board with my plan because they just know that they’re scattered all over, and none of them really want to take the responsibility by themselves on their own to handle the upkeep and the maintenance and the restoration that would need to take place.”
The petition for relocation describes the condition of the site: “Many of the headstones have fallen over and several have been stacked up against trees within the cemetery.” According to the document, the relocation of the cemetery would include the erection of a memorial and a fence or “natural landscaping” to surround the site, which Beckham said would allow privacy for family members wishing to visit.
However, the historic commission argued the abandonment of the site was forced by former property owners.
“The petition states that it is neglected and abandoned. That may be true but not for lack of effort on the descendants’ part,” Goad’s letter reads. “The descendants noted that on several occasions they attempted to enter the cemetery in a cleanup effort but met resistance to be on the property from a previous owner.”
The historic commission called a special meeting Friday to discuss the matter, to which Beckham brought her attorney, but she said the commission did not let her attorney speak on her behalf. So, Beckham personally reached out to board members to share her side of the story.
However, after Beckham talked it over with her husband, they decided to drop the petition. She said she felt the commission would not budge on their position, and some of the Mayfield descendants were displeased as well.
“I’m not going to make everybody happy in the family if I move it. The commission is probably going to find some way to shut me down,” she said. “This is a battle that I, frankly, just don’t care enough to fight. I’m not out to make enemies in the city of Brentwood, and that’s what this has kind of started out to be.”
The Beckhams now plan to sell the property and search for another place to build their new home.