William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying tells the story of Anse Bundren, an impoverished widower who carries his wife’s corpse across Mississippi to her desired burial ground.
Eighty-six years after the novel’s publication, the Southern infatuation with dead bodies continues unabated.
On July 7, the Memphis City Council voted to exhume the body of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate lieutenant general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He is buried beside his wife, who will also be removed.
Forrest and his wife are buried in Health Sciences Park, a public park that also contains a large statue of Forrest on horseback. The council hopes to sell the statue to “anyone who wants it.”
Before either the statue or the bones are removed, the Memphis City Council will have to figure out a way around two key Tennessee laws. The first is the state Heritage Protection Act of 2013, which states that,
No statue, monument, memorial, nameplate, or plaque which has been erected for, or named or dedicated in honor of…the War Between the States…and is located on public property, may be relocated, removed, altered, renamed, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed.
The Heritage Act was enacted in 2013, after the Memphis City Council renamed a number of local parks bearing the names of the Confederacy. One such park was Forrest Park (renamed Health Sciences Park), where Forrest currently resides.
Steve Mulroy, a law professor at the University of Memphis, points to a subtlety in section 2(a)(2) of the Heritage Act that might allow the City Council to bypass the historical commission entirely. Because the statue is of a “particular military figure,” Mulroy says the “literal plain language” forbids either renaming or rededicating the statue – but says nothing about moving it, he tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
The council might use this as a “fallback” option if the Tennessee Historical Commission rejects their petition. Mulroy believes the commission will rule in favor of removing the statue, due to the current nationwide momentum in favor of eradicating Confederate symbols across the country. After the shootings in Charleston, Confederate flags have been lowered all over the South, most notably on the South Carolina Capitol grounds.
The other obstacle is a Tennessee code on cemeteries, which reads that a burial ground may be disturbed only if it is in “neglected or abandoned condition; or...inconsistent with due and proper reverence or respect for the memory of the dead, or for any other reason unsuitable for those purposes.”
The Memphis City Council will have to file a suit with the Chancery Court if it wants to move the bodies. While the code deals primarily with abandoned cemeteries, Mulroy says that, if the Council deems Forrest’s current burial spot “no longer consistent with the public purpose,” then the petition will likely be accepted.
Further complicating the matter are rumors of the Memphis City Council’s plans to sell Health Sciences Park to the University of Tennessee.
Council member Myron Lowery, one of the leading proponents of Forrest’s removal, denied any knowledge of the plan. However, Professor Mulroy notes that the Chancery Court might be more sympathetic if the petition is framed as a sale to a large, public university like U.T.
Alfred L. Brophy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, was less enthusiastic about the disinterment plans. While less critical of the removal of the Confederate flag across the country, digging up Forrest’s bones “crosses a moral, religious, or just visceral line,” he said in an interview.
Brophy highlights the esteemed place that family holds in Southern culture. “More in the South than other places,” said Brophy, “you get these family cemeteries. People would just bury family members near the house.” Though Forrest is not buried on a family plot, Brophy sees the council’s plan as in opposition to the revered status of the family in Southern culture.
Forrest’s descendants are opposed to the council’s plan, as well. But Mulroy says that, per Forrest’s will, the planned action does not violate his wishes. The will requested that he be buried in the historic Elmwood Cemetery. Forrest and his wife were originally buried in Elmwood, where they remained until 1904. At that point, they were disinterred and moved to the new Forrest Park.