SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Thousands of bodies are stuffed in a section of Savannah's Laurel Grove North Cemetery. They call it the "Stranger Grounds".
Established in 1852, Laurel Grove North Cemetery (LGN) is approximately three and a half acres. Sixty acres were established as "Stranger Ground," are what is more commonly known as pauper burial grounds. According to cemetery records, there are approximately 4,600 bodies within the "Stranger Ground" section, of which nearly 3,800 are infant and child burials.
Pauper's burials and practices used in Savannah are not unique to the city. These are common in churches, private associations, and government-owned cemeteries throughout the world. Like other cemeteries, Savannah's pauper grounds were used to bury unclaimed bodies, unidentified bodies, unexpected deaths, and people who could not afford a proper burial.
With limited funding and numerous bodies, these burials were typically conducted in the least costly manner possible. In many cases, the burials were unmarked. Those that were marked often used wooden crosses, bottles, shells, which likely no longer exist. In some cases, the burials were unrecorded, the burials were placed in mass graves, and graves were reused.
In a statement, the City of Savannah said, "While these practices certainly fall short of our standards today, they were, unfortunately, norm for the time."
Two years ago, a Savannah local, Bryan Douberly, noticed the often dismissed plot of land. He felt the term "Stranger Ground," was unjust.
"They're not strangers. They're not strangers at all," he said. "They ain't unknowns. We got all their names. We got how they died. We got all that stuff. And being the fact there are children here too? They oughta do something."
Douberly spent the past two years digging into the past of those buried in this section.
"I started counting from years 1870-1878 and the numbers got too high for me to even keep on counting," he said.
Currently, the "Stranger Ground" is marked using a wooden cross. In a 1977 plan created by the Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission, they felt this sign was "historically accurate." Douberly says he believes otherwise, and locals and tourists need more information listed to know the history, and these bodies deserve representation.
City of Savannah Cemetery Director, Richard Gerbasi, said, "One thing you want to do in historic cemeteries is try to keep everything as historically accurate as possible and uniform. If I allow this person to have a sign, and they want this kind, and this one to have this kind....before you know it, you have a cemetery filled with signs and it becomes an eyesore. It takes away from the beauty and historical integrity of the cemetery."
The city says at this time, it is recommended that no changes be made to the signage of the "Stranger Grounds", as "each section is appropriately marked and all signs are in good condition." However, numerous recommendations for signage will be evaluated as part of the cemetery master plan, which is currently scheduled to begin in 2019.
"It needs a plan. You have to, again, try to keep consistent and uniform across the cemetery," Gerbasi said.
Currently, people are permitted to memorialize loved ones within the Stranger Grounds.
In a statement, the city said, "With the increasing popularity in genealogical research, memorial requests within the Stranger Grounds are common. Since we are unable to identify the specific burial location, cemetery staff will identify a location within the section that we believe to be the most likely area for installation of a memorial marker."
Douberly purchased a memorial for his great, great, great-grandmother and her children. He said, "This why I chose to add, 'Known Only to God'. Known only to God meaning we don't know where they're at and we never will know where they're at in here."
In a statement from the city Wednesday, they say it is still possible for a historical marker to be placed in the Stranger Grounds, but you must apply.
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