Many of Columbia County's oldest churches have cemeteries. These days, however, most of the county's newer places of worship, such as City of Life Ministries in Grovetown, hope to use their land for a purpose that doesn't focus on death.
The Rev. Dan White stands in the cemetery that surrounds Shiloh United Methodist Church in Appling. The graves date back more than 100 years. Newer churches no longer have cemeteries on the church property.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
"We're preparing people for life," said Apostle Fred Turner, of the two-year-old City of Life Ministries, adding that his church at 5220 Wrightsboro Road is examining the idea of a family life complex. "We're focusing on this life."
The idea of having life centers and athletic complexes has become common for many churches in the area, causing church cemeteries to become a thing of the past.
For example, the only new cemetery being planned in Columbia County is one that is privately owned on William Few Parkway. The site, called Magnolia Memorial Gardens, covers 110 acres. In the past, developers said they hoped to have the cemetery's first section open by this summer.
Robin Bechtel, a senior planner for the county's planning and development department, said it's rare to see a church have a cemetery in mind when presenting plans to the planning commission for a new site.
"Of all the churches that have presented plans, I haven't seen any make mention of having a place to build a cemetery," she said, adding that she has worked in her position for a year. "The most recent churches are proposing lifestyle centers, which are a part of long-term goals."
Bill Blackard, an Appling historian who has performed extensive research on Columbia County's cemeteries, said it was common in the past for families to have a cemetery at home or in the woods because of the convenience factor.
"Churches weren't established in those days," he said, adding that there are more than 50 cemetery sites in the county.
With the later establishment of churches in the county, families had found a new place to bury their dead.
Dan White, the pastor of Shiloh United Methodist Church in Appling, which has about half an acre of burials in the cemetery and an acre with no burials, said that during his four years of service at the church, most of the funerals he has performed have been at privately owned cemeteries.
"I think people are buried at privately owned cemeteries because they're assured of perpetual care," he said.
Although the church cemetery is well cared for, White said, it lacks landscaping, which privately owned cemeteries have.
On the other hand, White said some people are buried at their church cemetery because of their strong ties to the community, the family tradition involved and the cost factor.
"Most rural churches don't charge as much for perpetual care,'' he said. "The opening fee is practically nothing, and the plots are free for church members and their relatives.''
White said his church and many other United Methodist parishes are hoping to get out of the cemetery business because members want their tithes to go toward other expenditures, such as supporting church ministries.
"We would like to spin the cemetery off and make it a separate nonprofit corporation, with its trustees,'' he said. "I think this is a trend among rural churches.''
Bill Harrell, the pastor of Abilene Baptist Church at 3917 Washington Road in Martinez, which has a four-acre cemetery at its previous location off Old Evans Road, said church cemeteries are something of a "bygone era."
"When churches were sparsely located in a rural environment and there were few commercial cemeteries around, churches established their own cemeteries for their members and their families," he said.
As privately owned cemeteries were built, Harrell said, the need to have church cemeteries diminished. He said many people purchase plots in memorial gardens in advance and churches have learned that having a cemetery on their property will hinder future development.
"They have property tied up that will always be tied up in a cemetery," he said, adding that his church has a Christian Life Center. "They'd much rather have a place for their church where they can expand it in different directions."
John Reeves, the owner of Bellevue Memorial Gardens Inc. at 4501 Wrightsboro Road in Grovetown, said that when it comes to being buried in a privately owned cemetery, maintenance is always a factor.
"With privately owned cemeteries, we are required by law to place a certain percentage of our sales in a trust fund to offset maintenance in the future," he said about Bellevue's 52-acre site, which, he said, usually has about 170 to 180 burials a year. Reeves said there can be as many as 2,000 burials in an acre.
With more growth, Reeves said, church cemeteries should only continue to die off in Columbia County.
"For a lot of churches, when the congregation grows they're looking for a larger facility and many times move to a different location to accomplish the growth," he said. "Consequently, that would leave the church cemetery behind."
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