Grave concerns of washout prompt emergency dig at Independence cemetery

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INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- Independence city workers embarked on a massive emergency dig at Woodlawn Cemetery Thursday. The city is digging a path at least 100 feet long alongside grave sites.

AT&T crews installing data lines along Noland Road this weekend discovered a stormwater line was badly damaged. Independence's Sewer Maintenance Division Manager said they had to act immediately and start digging in the cemetery, or risk grave sites washing away.

Woodlawn is the final resting place for 33,000 people dating back to heroes from the Civil War and Santa Fe Trail. Onlookers were shocked to see city workers moving headstones out of their way as the holes they were digging got longer and longer, the mounds of dirt on grave sites piling higher.

“I was surprised because I always thought you couldn’t do that,” Debbie Waters said.

“To me, and I’ve had a couple other customers say the same thing to my wife, it just doesn’t look good,” neighboring business owner Jim O'Kelly said.

“This pipe was put in a long time ago, and since then they’ve put people on top of the pipe," Rich Kemple said. "To ensure we don’t have an issue in the future with this pipe failing and washing out grave sites, we’ve completely abandoned it and done the reroute.”

They are digging along an access route for maintenance vehicles in the cemetery. There aren’t supposed to be graves below. But since a city website says the land was likely originally Indian burial grounds, they can’t be too careful.

“As we hit something that feels like a piece of rock, we stop, we hand dig around it to make sure it’s not an unmarked grave, or an unmarked vault. Once we expose it and see it’s a piece of rock we get back in the equipment and continue on,” Kemple said.

They hope to dig to the road inside the cemetery by this weekend and then follow its path back to the main stormwater line, trying their best to disturb as few headstones as possible.

The construction is all taking place in the southwest corner of the cemetery. They expect to be finished by the end of next week, but it could be sometime until the roads will be repaved inside.