I rarely begin an article with a question—my goal is to end each rumination with more questions than I offer at the beginning—but this time I’m not going to hesitate. Why did the churches of yesteryear place cemeteries in the yards right next door? And what made them stop? Perhaps I feel more confident in beginning with this question because I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer. I cannot imagine a church plant in the 21st century that sets aside a patch of land for the affiliated interment grounds. It’s just not the practice anymore. People no longer seek to get buried near their church, perhaps because they don’t have a church or because they prefer cremation. But even if they’re devout and still prefer a casket, it’s simply hard to find anyone who associates they’re church with the consecrated land of their eternal rest. So when we encounter churches that do feature an adjacent cemetery, chances are they’re old. Real old. Like Calloway here.
At first glance, it seems hard to imagine that Calloway United Methodist Church necessarily dates from time period when churches featured a small cemetery. After all, the building doesn’t look more than fifty years old, an inference that the cornerstone confirms.
If the details etched here are hard to read, I can help out. The stone on the left, above the line, states “M. E. Church 1904”, indicating what I presume was a Methodist Episcopal Church dating from 1904 at this site on Lee Highway (US Highway 29) in Arlington County, Virginia. Below the line, it states “Methodist Church Sept. 15, 1940”, suggesting a reconsecration under the Methodist Church, which may have less to do with actions specific to this congregation or building and more with the parent denomination. After all, 1939 ushered in the reunion of the northern and southern factions of the Methodist Episcopal Church—long separated over theological differences regarding slavery—together with the Methodist Protestant Church; collectively the three entities (Episcopal north, Episcopal south, Protestant) formed the Methodist Church. A second significant merger thirty years later fused the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form what remains to this day the nationally recognized United Methodist Church, from which Calloway derives its name. And ten years after that seminal merger, in 1978, the Calloway United Methodist Church embarked on a remodeling and addition, as indicated from the cornerstone on the right. No doubt this remodeling completed in 1979 was significant enough to endow the church with its far more contemporary appearance, certainly more modern than the scattered graves twenty feet from the side entrance.
These cornerstones beg the question of how this church has reshaped itself, both architecturally and doctrinally. Though reduced in number from its peak in the middle of the 20th century, the United Methodist Church (Calloway’s parent) remains the largest of the historic Mainline Protestant churches. (I’ve noted the Mainline Protestant faith’s continued decline many times in the past at this blog.) All evidence provided through the website suggests that Calloway is a traditional member within the Virginia Annual Conference of the UMC, with a largely African-American congregation. The website indicates that the church has operated since 1866, but it is coy about its history. Incidentally, far more information is available on Calloway thanks to its adjacent cemetery, which the Washington Post featured in a 2012 article because Arlington County was preparing to designate the cemetery as a historic district, a condition that has helped resuscitate it from its status as an afterthought.
I use the word “afterthought” not for its pejorative implications but because even the article admits that the Calloway Cemetery had fallen into neglect. The last burial took place in 1959. Several gravestones fell. A 1960 widening of the nearby Lee Highway (just barely peeping through on the lefthand margin of the above photos) exhumed ten bodies in unmarked plots, which VDOT reinterred at Coleman Cemetery in nearby Fairfax County. This Post article also elaborates upon the Calloway church’s founding in the telltale year 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, when emancipated slaves purchased land from former plantation owners to settle the church. The historic designation of this cemetery undoubtedly prompted a broader exploration of both the church’s history and role in the burgeoning Arlington neighborhood, as well as a reacquaintance with some of its founding members, who undoubtedly claim the grave sites. Despite the thoughtful forays into archaeology and genealogy, the article doesn’t answer the question “Why?” Why did the practice of burying congregants at the church cemetery fall out of favor to such an extent that the cemetery almost became an albatross?
As I indicated at the beginning, I’m not sure I have answers, but a reconnaissance at least offers some opportunities for reasonable speculation. Many of the graves at Calloway Cemetery are still standing strong—a veneration for the sacred grounds which the Arlington County historic designation certainly helped to galvanize.
But the encroachment of the profane is overwhelming.
Just a few feet from the edge of the Calloway Cemetery’s graves are private single-family residences, most of which look like they date from the middle of the 20th century, about the same time the United Methodist Church initiated its series of mergers. The Calloway parcel is small—less than an acre, flanked by its tiny cemetery (smaller than the average residential lot in the area) and a little sculpture park on the other side. As indicated, the church sits close to Lee Highway at the front, and the residential 22nd Street runs close at the back. The church property is so constrained that it offers only a few off-street parking spaces, typically reserved for clergy or congregants with disabilities. The home in the background of this photo almost certainly is the parsonage, or, at the very least, office/administration pertaining to the church.
Simply put, Calloway Cemetery lacked room to grow amidst the rapid suburbanization that took place as developers purchased old plantation grounds, subdivided them, and transformed them to Arlington’s prosperous bedroom community within a quick commute to central Washington DC. The Post notes the segregationist attitude that pervaded in the 1950s, which no doubt precluded the African-American congregation from the expansion or relocation opportunities it might have otherwise enjoyed. But in 2021, it’s a fortuitous location in a walkable neighborhood where older homes get torn down to make way for large, contemporary structures squeezed into the tiny lots.
But, amidst this growth and regeneration, cemeteries and middle class homes don’t always make the most harmonious neighbors. The typical cemetery represents greenery likely to remain in perpetuity, which in most respects is plus. (The average American scarcely knows that cemeteries were popular picnic and recreational sites in the days before urban parks.) But is a cemetery as desirable as a baseball diamond? It’s quieter, sure. The abundance of memorials to long-deceased people endows them with an encoded history that will always interest some. But, as pretty as a well-kept cemetery can be, and as intriguing as the really old ones like Calloway often are (even if neglected), it’s rare that a home sitting cheek-by-jowl with a cemetery is going to command as high of a selling price as one that has some distance. Maybe it’s just too evocative of Poltergeist; maybe there are genuine concerns of aquifer contamination (probably unfounded, since all soil consists of decomposing organic matter). But a church having a cemetery right next door is equally unsettling for the congregants. People don’t necessarily want to be singing hymns and, at the same time, peeping out the window at a stone marker of the person who used to sit next to them in the pews. Churches are less involved in funeral services and last rites than they were even a generation ago. At this point, it’s just as common for a family to hold a “celebration of life” rather than a dour funeral. Perhaps most importantly when it comes to Calloway Cemetery, the locational options for interment have grown since the mid 20th century, especially given the Church’s largely African-American composition. Segregated cemeteries were the norm when de jure segregation was widespread, especially in the South. Discrimination may have constrained options for burial in 1950; civil rights legislation guarantees today that anyone can get buried wherever they can afford it. If they even choose a casket funeral.
There’s no doubt good reason that, as enduring as Calloway United Methodist might be, none of its members has sought burial at the cemetery for over sixty years, and the last few generations have largely disassociated themselves from the site, up until the historic designation lent credence to its pivotal role in allowing freed slaves to assert a permanent role in Arlington County. It’s a curiosity, and it endows the church with a certain prestige, since it testifies to the fact that a congregation has occupied the land for more than 150 years. It’s also an important throwback to a time not so long ago when Arlington County, now approaching 100% developmental build-out, was overwhelmingly rural and agrarian. Today, one would be hard pressed to find a single farm parcel greater than ten acres in the county. But all of those cultural and historic signifiers, important though they may be, don’t translate into a growing collective will to get buried a stone’s throw from where they once worshipped. And if members of the church need a green space to throw a frisbee or hold a cookout, they still have a patch of green on the other side from the cemetery, in front of the parsonage. And for the spillover crowds, there’s that sculpture garden immediately next door. In crowded and expensive Arlington County, it’s a fine piece of land.