The old Cypress Mills Cemetery could be back in the news again this spring, though there hasn't been a burial there in almost 20 years.
The cemetery is adjacent to land the city hopes to sell to a Chinese company that wants to build an integrative medicine school in a partnership with the University of North Alabama. The cemetery won't be part of the proposed development, but there is some concern about what will become of the historic property.
"The Chinese would not be interested, in my opinion, in owning the land from a liability standpoint," Mayor Mickey Haddock said.
The Cypress Mill Cemetery, also know as the Martin Cemetery, is one of two dozen inside the city limits. Only one, Florence City Cemetery, is cared for by a local government. The others are either commercially owned or associated with families from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Robert Steen, chairman of the city's Historical Board, said the cemeteries are private property.
But if Guizhou Shenqi Group buys the 155-acre former Florence Golf and Country Club, the Cypress Mill Cemetery will become landlocked, and that is where concern is building that it will become difficult to get to. Haddock said he is confident the new owner would honor requests to allow people into the cemetery.
Alabama law, in fact, requires landowners to allow access to family cemeteries, though the law can set restrictions, Steen said.
The biggest puzzle for local authorities is who actually owns the old family cemeteries and who is required to care of them. Steen said a few of the old cemeteries are being cared for to some extent by the descendants of those buried in family cemeteries. But many more are derelict and overgrown, posing questions about who, if anyone, should be caring for them, he said.
The Florence City Council created a cemetery authority in 2012 to catalogue cemeteries inside the city and create a prioritized list of those in the greatest need of attention.
One that is already getting attention is off Helton Drive near the Florence-Lauderdale Industrial Park. Former Gov. Hugh McVay is buried there, and a tree is threatening to damage markers, Steen said. Money is being raised to cut down the tree, he said.
The city's cemetery authority was formed in response to public concern about the Coffee Cemetery off Cloverdale Road. Wal-Mart is building a new store next to the historic cemetery that contains the remains of Gen. John Coffee and his family.
Steen said the committee is assembling its list and tracking owners of the cemeteries through deeds and other records. So far, they have turned up little in the way of solid information.
The city cemetery authority has no budget to speak of, and relies on volunteers and the occasional donation to perform maintenance in the old cemeteries, he said. The committee's restoration could expand, depending on the availability of money.
"These cemeteries have a lot of history," City Council President Dick Jordan said. "We need to at least put up some protection to keep the vandals out.
"We need to take care of them the best we can as far as our funds will go," he said. "We need to ask the families of those buried in them to help restore them and be responsible for the maintenance on them if they can."
Haddock said access to the Cypress Mill Cemetery can be negotiated into the sale contract with Guizhou Shenqi Group.
Robert Palmer can be reached at 256-740-5720 or robert.palmer@TimesDaily.com.