Oconee Hill Cemetery

Whenever you read about the historic Oconee Hill Cemetery in the local newspaper or a UGA website, one glaring fact is omitted:

Visitors are not welcome.

I continue to collect the stories of encounters at the cemetery. The overseer is said to rudely confront anyone that visits, even if they have a relative buried there. He also tells them that the cemetery is "private property," despite the fact it is publicly owned.

I'm assuming that the trustees of the cemetery have the right to limit access, and I understand that their policies are driven by the need to control the horrendous level of vandalism that the place has suffered, activities which hurt families with relatives buried there and deprive our community of historic items. However, it is not a good idea to be rude to the members of your community.

This has prompted me to begin looking into the history and management of this public cemetery, a place that is a public resource and not private property. I also hope to figure out how to find the charter for the board of trustees. If anyone has any information, please share it here or send me an email.

Comments received

Dean Maddox: I, too have attempted to visit a gravesite in Oconee Hill Cemetery and was turned away by the caretaker. He wasn't rude or gruff but he did tell me that the cemetery was private and he wouldn't tell me the location of the grave I was looking for. If this really is a publicly owned cemetery, Board of Trustees or not, they must allow access to the public. The older section is in great disrepair. I understand the vandalism concern but just how many vandals do you think would ask for directions for a specific grave? If anyone knows where Coach Wally Butts, Coach Bill Hartman, and Crawford Long are, I'd be grateful. I live in Savannah but I visit the cemetery every time I'm in Athend. I just drive in and I never get a second look. I guess he thinks I know exactly what I'm looking for.

rh: I visited the Oconee Hill Cemetary recently, or should I say attempted to visit? The sexton was extremely rude and hostile. I was driving to a gravesite when he approached me and bombarded me with a million questions. I felt disrespected because his tone of voice was very threatening. I do believe the graveyard needs an attendant to watch out for any inappropriate behavior or vandalism but to harass relatives and visitors is extemely disrespectful. He had a very belittling tone and even used profanity. I will speak to the board of tustees asap. I was told that Robert E. Gibson could be contacted about these matters.


Maury said...

I was turned away last weekend (March 2, 2008.) Granted, I wasn't visiting a grave, but just enjoying the afternoon with a long walk. Same story: a truck came to a quick stop and an overzealous man with mirrored aviators yelled if he could help me. I said "no" and kept walking. He identified himself, said I was on private property and that I needed to head to the exit. I just looked at him and smiled and he again told me to leave.

WendyLooHoo said...

Wow! I must have been lucky. My husband and I walked the entire cemetery this afternoon for about two hours, taking photos along the way, and never were molested by anyone once. In fact, there were numerous people walking in the cemetery this afternoon.

Stricklander said...

I just thought to respond in defense of the sexton. I know him personally and he is an excellent man. He has had to deal with some of the most foul and sickening acts that college students, along with their friends, customers, and even their professors do out in the cemetery, thinking no one will bother them there. You don't have to use too much of an imagination to find out what goes on when a man and woman are alone in the last place people think things happen. He doesn't want to be that way, but imagine what you would do after the things he has come up against in taking care of the grounds, not to mention vandalism that happens there. Just be thankful none of you walk up on the acts being done that he has had to, and in a cemetery at that.

Chris said...

I was also turned away 2 days ago. To begin with, I work for the Athens/Clarke County Government. I am a construction inspector and my duties led me to the construction that is currently on-going along the river in the cemetery. After leaving the construction site, i decided to spend my lunch hour looking through the cemetery. No sooner as the truck came to a stop, i was approached by a man driving a truck (the sexton i assume) stating that the cemetery is private and i needed to leave. After explaining who i was (county employee) and what my "business" was there, he said he had no problem with me entering the cemetery to inspect the work but walking and looking woud not be tolerated nor allowed. Regardless of what has happened there in the past or what he has seen.... a little courtesy to vistors should be a priority. He may be an excellent man as mentioned in a prior comment but it appears he doesn't treat everyone the same....

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

About a year or so ago, I was also told to leave, so I think this has been going on for a while.

I always thought the graveyard was public property, but I now know otherwise. I have visited many times in the past, but I found out the hard way that photography in the graveyard is a big no-no.

The graveyard APPEARED to be open (middle of the day, gates open) but according to the person who stopped me, in order to photograph there, you have to apply for a permit and make an appointment for a tour (which I think is within their rights as it is private property, but Adrian probably knows better than I do!)

I sensed that I was unlikely to get such a permit as the word "trespassing" had already been loudly throw about.

Kind of sad. It's a beautiful place and a historic treasure (and I am very respectful of the places I photograph).

Overall, it was a disheartening and unnerving experience, although certainly not the first or last time I've been threatened because I had a camera in my hand.

Adrian Pritchett said...

After researching the title to the cemetery property, it sure does look like a public cemetery to me. It belonged to the City of Athens, and then -- without a deed transfer -- an act of the General Assembly created a board of trustees to oversee it. The board has proprietary control of the grounds, but that does not make it "private" property.

Unknown said...

"The board has proprietary control of the grounds, but that does not make it "private" property."

Well, that is interesting as I was CLEARLY told that it IS private property.

so, proprietary control, would that involve the ability to ask people to leave, ban on photography, threaten visitors, etc?

Bob said...

I just went today; walked right in and saw no signs only "No bikes/no pets" painted on the road near the sexton's house.
I was stopped on my way out after wandering the grounds taking pictures.
"What exactly are you doing?" I was aggressively asked by someone in a jeep who only identified himself as from "Athens-Clarke County."
I told him what I was doing and he said that it was a private cemetery and to enjoy my photos but not to post them online. "If we find them online." Well, I don't know what would happen because he didn't say.
It stuck me as odd that if it was a private cemetery, why was a city-county employee working there?

From the Rules and Regulations (2008) from the cemetery's website:
"Visitors are always welcome"
•Please observe posted hours for visitations.
•Appropriate behavior and dress required.
•All guests are asked to sign the registration book.
•Bicycles are allowed on paved roads only.
•Photography allowed with approval of the Sexton.
•Tours, picnics, and outings allowed with the approval of the Sexton.
•Other rules at the discretion of the Sexton.

Not Allowed
•Etchings and Rubbings
•The Cutting of trees or plants.
•Unattended pets.

There's no signage at the gate so how was I to know? The "other rules at the discretion of the Sexton" seems a bit overly broad.

Devodynamo said...

A friend and I were turned away back in November, and I agree, I want to know more about the cemetery.

Katyakun said...

i'm Devo's friend, and i've lived in Athens off and on for the past 6 years. November was the first time i went to the graveyard, but i had been wanting to go since i laid eyes on it, i just never had a chance to. i like going to graveyards and taking pictures of the artistry on the tombs and monuments, plus graveyards have always been very close to my heart. i always show reverence (walk softly, talk quietly, etc) while i'm in a graveyard. it absolutely broke my heart when we were approached by the sexton (not as rudely as others, but not respectfully either) and pretty much asked to leave. i've never been kicked out of a cemetery before. i've actually had family members of people buried in some of the cemeteries i've visited come up to me and tell me how much they appreciated me visiting. i never knew this graveyard was private property, there's no signage whatsoever. i can understand wanting to keep it nice and neat (which whoever was cutting the grass the day i went cut it right on the grave plots) but to kick visitors out is uncalled for. i would like to revisit the graveyard in the future just because it is a gorgeous graveyard with so much history in it. but i don't want to get yelled at again for doing something so little as visiting a grave that probably doesn't get visited, nor is shown the respect it deserves. i almost want to cry because of it.

Shannon said...

I'm wondering if there are any updates on the behavior of this man? Looking at the website for the cemetery I notice they sell plots, that act alone deems it a public cemetery (even if it were privately owned). Has anyone contacted the "Friends of the Oconee Hill Cemetery" to get a comment from them on this situation?

Adrian Pritchett said...

This story needs a followup because news reports in the last few years have suggested that the trustees have made significant changes to how things are being run. I do not know how the changes have affected visitors, but I was hoping that the place would become more welcoming. I have not been back myself to find out.

phoenixangel said...

My family owns plots in Oconee Hill Cemetary, in fact my father is buried there. I was young when he died and always get lost when I go to see his grave. The sexton while only slightly gruff, has always been helpful to me and my family. We are grateful for the care that he has given my father's grave. He has only tried to get onto me one time, till he saw that I was pulling weeds from around my Daddy's headstone. Even then he had apologized for disturbing me while I tended to my father's grave, and the family's plot. I was going bi-yearly at the time a lot of these posts were written and I have never had a problem going into the cemetery. The sexton does get protective when people go to the older section of the cemetery for good reason, but I have never had an issue.

Dawn said...

We are a homeschool family, we visit cemeteries in any city we visit. We parked on campus and hiked a mile one way. After being in the cemetery for only a few minutes we were approached by a large red truck with a gruff sexton, he ask why we were there, what we were doing and no pics allowed. We hiked back to the car and paid him another visit. I do not take well to someone trying to intimidate me, I informed him that we have been to cemeteries all over the country, we know how to be respectful. I would suggest they try a different approach and give "tours" they should be proud that people care.

Don Smith said...

I work for Oconee Hill Cemetery as a marketing and technology consultant. Some of the incidents posted here are part of the history but not the future and that comes from the trustees who welcome everyone to enjoy this wonderful treasure of Athens. You are welcome to visit whether you have anyone buried here or not. You can ride your bicycle (on paths and roads of course), take photos and post them on any media you want. If you are ever confronted by anyone that is not polite and helpful just ask them for their name so you can report their behavior. Then you can email me directly so I can report those actions to the proper authorities. Disrespect and threats will not be tolerated. Do not confront them directly. My email is dhsmith@bellsouth.net.