Yard signs appeared in front of Carrboro Elementary School, the Farmer’s Market, and on the Libba Cotten bike path, and a new website appeared over the weekend called MakePark.org.

The tagline of both the website and the yard signs are “Make parks, not graveyards” and concern the possible Westwood Cemetery expansion.

makepark.org signs

This is a nuanced and complicated issue. If you’ve been following Carrboro Town Council meetings, you’ll know that the possible cemetery expansion has come up over the past couple of years because the municipal Westwood Cemetery, located on town-owned land a few blocks behind the Farmer’s Market, is almost full.

We as a community need to decide what to do — and there are two distinct issues to tease out.

The first is what to do about the cemetery. Do we:

  1. Expand the existing cemetery into the adjacent empty field?
  2. Expand the existing cemetery into part of the adjacent empty field?
  3. Not expand, and purchase land outside of the town’s borders for future burial plots?
  4. Not expand, and don’t purchase land. In other words, does Carrboro get out of the cemetery business altogether?

The second question that Carrboro has to grapple with is much more complicated: This is 5.5 acres of town-owned land, split between a meadow and woods, within walking distance of several bus lines and close to downtown. And that means there could be alternative uses for the land besides the park OR the cemetery binary:

  • Should Carrboro sell part of the land, which could bring in millions for affordable housing?
  • Or carve up the land, so that part is reserved for cemetery, part for open space and part reserved for another use, like affordable housing, which is also much easier and cheaper to build on town-owned land?

Town Council appears to currently lean no on selling the land and no on building housing there.

Is a compromise possible?

So the discussion becomes solely about what to do about the cemetery and the adjacent plot of land, which is currently used by nearby community members as a passive and active recreation spot for dogs and humans.

Make Park’s answer is this: they want the town to not expand the cemetery beyond its existing borders, keep the adjacent land as a meadow/park, and purchase land in the rural buffer for future burials.

But that may be harder said than done. Carrboro doesn’t necessarily have the resources to purchase land in the rural buffer for a cemetery — and it’s quite expensive. A recent 3.83-acre plot sold earlier this month for $237,650, much higher than the estimated $90,000 that the Make Park website suggests would be the price for 3 acres for a site on Jones Ferry and Damascus Church Road. That doesn’t include the cost of additional maintenance and upkeep like mowing.

But there may be a way to compromise and make everyone happy here — both the people who want all green space and the people who want to, at present, continue burials in a public cemetery. And that’s due to how cemeteries across the country are themselves becoming more intentional green spaces that serve both a burial and park function. In other words, cemeteries can themselves function as parks and green space.

A (very) short history of Westwood Cemetery

Cemeteries as we know them today didn’t exist before the 1830s. Before then, burials took place in church yards or in burial grounds or in potter’s fields.

In comparison to the ornate windy graveyards in Philadelphia or St. Louis or Washington DC, the two public cemeteries in Carrboro are pretty small and reserved. There’s “Old Carrboro Cemetery,” established around 1860, near the Libba Cotten bike path. It’s full.

And there’s Westwood Cemetery, which was established around 1933, according to a study conducted some years ago by the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill. It’s almost full.

Westwood Cemetery
Westwood Cemetery in Carrboro, from above. The cemetery is a few blocks from open space and recreation opportunities at both Town Commons and Carrboro Elementary School.

Carrboro Town Council’s latest discussions around Westwood have concerned who should receive the remaining 102 plots, which are projected to run out in about 18 months. Should they go to Carrboro residents? Relatives of those already buried there? Relatives of Carrboro residents?

It’s a complicated discussion, fraught with issues around land use, culture, religion, and how we plan for the future. One of the debates Carrboro Town Council has been having is about the cultural significance of burials for the Black community – many Black cemeteries were abandoned, or unearthed. Having a space set aside is a way to redress some of these wounds and honor lives.

Westwood itself has a complicated history.

Westwood is located behind the Carrboro Farmer’s Market on Fidelity, in a plot of land currently surrounded by multi-family units. It’s peaceful and quiet. There are a total of 2,162 unobstructed plots at Westwood, which started out as a whites-only cemetery and remained that way for decades.

A study conducted by the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill,A Segregated Part of Heaven – The History of the West Chapel Hill Cemetery, notes the following:

“In 1947, The State of North Carolina’s legislature enacted ‘Use of cemeteries for burial of dead, according to race,’ which ensured cemeteries were segregated according to race.” “The primary cemetery that Carrboro’s black residents were buried in was the segregated “Old Carrboro Cemetery,” established circa 1860 (Cemetery Census n.d.). The “new” Carrboro cemetery (known as “Westwood”), was established circa 1933 and may have been a whites-only or segregated cemetery, at least until desegregation occurred in the 1960s.” According to the Town’s records, approximately 350 plots were sold in Westwood Cemetery and approximately 140 internments occurred prior to 1965. It’s important to note, that desegregation did not instantaneously take place in every location across the nation once the Civil Rights Act was federally mandated; therefore, more research is needed to determine when desegregation occurred in Westwood Cemetery.”

Westwood started to allow Black people to be buried in 1968. The town does not track the race of cemetery plots purchasers or those interred.

The cemetery is going to fill up soon. A total of 66 cemetery plots sold in Westwood Cemetery in 2022 and the town is expected to fully run out of plots within 18 months. Our neighboring municipalities (Chapel Hill, Hillsborough) have already run out of plots and are out of the cemetery business. Without expanding or relocating, Carrboro will be out of the cemetery business and people who want a public burial will lose the only affordable option in a three-county area.

Currently, green burials are not allowed in Westwood, though the Council suggested in February 2023 that it was something they’d like to revisit, along with a concept plan with memorial garden, walking paths, and options for cremains including columbarium walls, an ossuary, and a scattering garden.

The concept plan seems like an attempt at a compromise: a way to make the cemetery expansion a more intentionally-planned green space that would allow space for those who need an affordable burial option while preserving walking trails and open space for those who recreate there. It also gives another 25-30 years of burial at the present rate and allows for green burial, which is more environmentally-friendly.

I hope that if council decides to go this route, that they work to preserve the existing trees, which provide much-needed shade, and that the community would have input into the design of walking trails and recreational space.

Cemeteries can be green spaces too

This compromise would not be unprecedented. Other cemeteries around the world and country are widely used for passive recreation, or are being transformed so that they can serve multi-functional uses.

The Woodlands in Philadelphia is one such space. It’s in West Philly, near Penn, and is used by runners, joggers, bikers, and others who want to relax, exercise, or have a picnic. It’s designed for passive recreation, and has a very popular gardening group that maintains graveyard flowers.

Alan Walker / Woodlands Cemetery / CC BY-SA 2.0
The Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia is used by nearby residents as a recreation space.

The Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Florida is another example. It contains a meadow, wildelife, and allows passive recreation. The Historic Congressional Cemetery in DC hosts guided strolls, poetry open mics, and concerts among its trails. Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh is used as a passive recreation space by many.

A cemetery dating back to 1803 on Grange Road in the town of Halfmoon, New York, captured May 18, 2021.

These are hard questions

This is a complicated and fraught topic, which is evidenced by the difficult conversations had at recent council meetings about the cemetery. And it’s not specific to Carrboro — many cemeteries around the country are running out of room. A recent study by professors at Iowa State University and Florida State University projects that we’d need an area roughly the size of Las Vegas to bury all of the people expected to die over the next 20 years.

Of course, cremation rates are rising and are predicted to continue to rise, so this may be a non-issue in the future.

But for now, Carrboro’s Town Council must grapple with this: there are families that want to continue to be buried in Westwood, and there are families who want to recreate on the green space where the cemetery could potentially expand.

Perhaps we can do both.

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Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....