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So they can rest in peace

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Woman spends decades tending graves of people she never met

By Meaghan Downs

This house would be their home.
But there’s one thing about it you may not like, the late Jackie Benningfield told his wife Betty Benningfield in the early ‘70s.
Someone buried dead people in their new backyard.  
Embraced by a 200-year-old stone fence, the Bell-Carpenter graveyard rests a few feet away from the intersection of Carlton and Maple Drive.
Believe it or not, Betty Benningfield said, a thicket of trees surrounded this family plot in the Anderson County countryside instead of a row of houses in the well-developed subdivision.
Benningfield maintains the cemetery, but she’s not related to any of the deceased.
Two elderly women came by once in the ‘70s, saying they had relatives buried there, Benningfield said.
She has not seen any living relatives come by to visit the site since.  
As she has for about 16 years, Benningfield rises before the heat settles hot and heavy in the summer afternoon or walks to the cemetery in the cool of the late afternoon to tend the plot. She started spending more of her time on the site after she retired, and likes listening to the birds.
“I love standing here,” Benningfield said as she slid open several screened windows of her sun porch that faces the cemetery.
She stopped a moment to look at the graveyard: the small border of flowers and bushes around one side of the stone fence. The single blooming cherry tree casting a shadow over closely clipped grass and faded headstones.  
“To me, this is beautiful,” she said.  
Beautiful and peaceful, not haunted — the specter of 19th century Anderson County ghosts doesn’t bother Benningfield in the least.
Didn’t bother her children either, while she raised them in the house she bought with her late husband from JB Sweeney.  
“I don’t think it’s the dead we need to be fearful of, more so the living,” Benningfield said with a laugh of the Bell-Carpenter graveyard located just to the south of her Carlton Drive property.
The headstones are planted inside the stone fence enclosure in no order of rows or columns.
Four larger headstones group together in a little family of graves; other markers mark the interior border of the graveyard every couple of feet.
Benningfield counts about 14 grave markers in the plot, but is not sure how many people are actually buried there.
Five of the stone bases do not have a marker, broken off because of vandalism or time.
She’s not a historian, Benningfield said, so she’s never delved into the lives behind the names, some now barely visible after more than 100 years.  
Her neighbor, Kenny Phillips, did give her a list compiled by a former member of the Daughters of the American Revolution listing a few of the deceased and their names, date of birth and death.
Benningfield also knows there are a few slaves buried under the cemetery’s rich soil, and that those graves are separate from the others.
At least, that’s what those two women claiming to be relatives told her when they stopped by the graveyard.
She’s not sure if the smaller markers (most of the headstones have broken off) are children or slaves.
One smaller headstone marks the grave of John Madison, son of W.E. and E.E. (Bettie) Bell, died at age 3 in January 1878.
His sister, Josephine Wallace, died at age 5.
A similar sized marker, as seemingly ornate as the children’s, stands at the other side of the family plot. The stone reads: “Harriet Wash, Colored, died Aug. 15 1887.” She was 65.
On the opposite side, one weathered rock is blank, except for an “H” and a “W” etched at the top corners.
Benningfield said it’s not in her to pore over research, but it is like her to plant the perennials her neighbors and family divide and share among themselves.
Flowers that are not too invasive, of course: peonies, irises, lilies and sedum.
Instead of plowing for a separate flowerbed every spring, the cemetery is her garden.
“’Bout anything you stick out there, it’s gonna grow,” Benningfield said.  
She would like to put down mulch eventually to prevent the growth of weeds.
She also hopes Sarah White Carpenter’s headstone will stop tilting dangerously to one side. She’s already had to have her son remove one gravestone as it was falling off its base.
Benningfield said she wasn’t sure who would maintain the graveyard after she’s gone. It’s not her job to mow the grass and weed the flowers, but it’s their resting place.
Even if these final resting places lie in a subdivision, Benningfield said that doesn’t matter.
Their bones may be here, Benningfield said.
But when the Bells and the Carpenters and the Cases and Harriet Wash and the unknown slaves left this world, their souls lived on.

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Can small family cemeteries be relocated?  
It’s not unusual to find small family plots and cemeteries all around Anderson County, and Betty Benningfield hopes the small cemetery she tends will be around for years to come.
But will it?
Stephen Brooks, the general counsel for the Kentucky Cemetery Association, said a survey estimated that there are about 35,000 “pioneer” cemeteries in the state.
These “pioneer” or family graveyards are protected from vandalism and destruction by state statutes, Brooks said, but there are no specific laws that prohibit heirs or descendants from relocating family plots.
According to City Clerk Robbie Hume, no city ordinance exists regarding the protection or regulation of small family grave plots.
Federal and Kentucky state government could relocate graves for the purpose of constructing a highway, but such a move would require advertisement through public notices and measures taken to make sure the deceased had a final resting place elsewhere, Brooks said.
To Brooks’ knowledge, there are no other exceptions for relocating a graveyard unless the property belongs to an heir or descendant. Descendants also have a right to view the gravesite, he said, even if the cemetery is located on another property owner’s land.
“Only the heirs or descendants have right to speak for the person in the grave,” Brooks said.
Benningfield invites anyone who wants to look at the graveyard located to the south of her house on the corner of Carlton and Maple Drive to come by and take a look.
Some states such as Ohio, Brooks said, are required to have their highway departments plan roads around those small cemeteries.
“There really isn’t anything in Kentucky that guarantees your final resting place is your final resting place,” Brooks said.