Guns, Graves, and Gray Area: Part 3 of the East End Cemetery Saga / by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Grave in a largely overgrown section of East End Cemetery, Henrico County, Virginia, December 2014. © 2014

Grave in a largely overgrown section of East End Cemetery, Henrico County, Virginia, December 2014. © 2014

“Hunting season is over,” a Virginia Department of Inland Game and Fisheries officer told me a few days ago. It ended January 3 in Henrico County and Richmond. If you see any orange-capped men carrying firearms striding across East End Cemetery, he said, they’ll be breaking the law. So, for now, the danger of a hunter mistakenly shooting a Boy Scout has abated, it seems.

This is great news, because dozens of cemetery-cleaning volunteers have signed up for a special Martin Luther King Jr. work day at East End. (The regular Saturday work day is happening tomorrow.)

Deep breath of relief . . .

And then back to worrying.

The hunters we saw and heard on December 13 may have been breaking the law even then—the VDGIF police officer I spoke to said they were probably trespassing—so it’s possible that this hunting posse doesn’t let “laws” and codes interfere with their armed recreation. Plus: Though deer and bear seasons are over—the last day was January 3—turkey season runs until January 24. On top of that, if you have a hunting license and permission from a landowner, you can hunt feral hogs on private land year-round.

Which means we’re not out of the woods yet, because the hunters may not be either.

I’m still hunting for answers to basic questions about the December 13 incident.

Law enforcement and county and state officials have answered several pressing ones, but there’s a lot we still don’t know.

Here’s a rundown:

Were the hunters obeying the law or violating it?

This question contains several others:

Is it legal to hunt in cemeteries in the state of Virginia?

In Henrico, where the largest hunk of East End lies, hunting with firearms, on private land, is perfectly OK, even in cemeteries.

In Richmond, discharging a firearm, for any purpose (or lack thereof), is illegal. Bowhunting, however, is fine.

Where exactly were the men hunting on December 13—and, specifically, where were the men shooting? East End? Evergreen? Henrico? Richmond?

I do not yet know, and we may never know.

The two Henrico Police Division officers who responded to the incident spoke to our group, but it seems that they credited only what the hunters told them. The officers did not file an incident report, and HPD will not release the name of the person who reportedly granted the hunters permission.

Did the hunters have permission to hunt at East End?

Hunters told me, the officers, and scoutmasters that they had the owner’s approval.

That’s not what the last surviving member of the East End Burial Association, Dr. Earl Gray, told me. The association is listed by Henrico County as the cemetery’s owner.

"Did you grant any hunters permission to hunt there?" I asked Dr. Gray. “No,” he replied.

I asked again. “No,” he said again.

"Have you ever granted such permission?" I pushed. “No,” he told me.

In fact, Dr. Gray says he hasn’t granted permission to anyone to be out there. He told me, however, that he’s not averse to the cemetery cleanup efforts by Virginia Roots and the volunteers. (Families have the right under Virginia law to visit the graves of their loved ones at private cemeteries.)

Dr. Gray, who is 86, also told me how the cemetery came to be in its current, wild state.

“The cemetery went default, and it was unfinancial [sic], and so it was overgrown. And so the folks who had their names in the cemetery did not keep it up, and I didn’t offer perpetual care, so that’s what it is. I have no further information to give to you.”

Who is responsible for the cemetery?

We’re in deep, foggy gray area here. “We don’t bury anyone in there anymore,” Dr. Gray told me, “and at the present time the county is controlling all information about the cemetery. . . . I know the county right now is taking it over, and that’s it.”

That’s not what folks in Henrico say.

“I’m not sure where Dr. Gray is getting his information, but East End Cemetery is a private cemetery. The county doesn’t own it, doesn’t maintain it,” said Mark Strickler, the county’s director of community revitalization. “The families—this is my understanding—essentially the families under state law have access to the graves and can maintain the property themselves, but that’s about the extent of it. There’s no laws—or there’s no state laws—about what happens if somebody abandons a cemetery.”

Not especially cheery news. But there’s some hope. Henrico just launched a “cemetery task force.” Says Strickler, “It’s basically just some internal staff that’s just been asked to look at the issue of private cemeteries. And we’ve had one meeting. So it’s an effort that’s just beginning.”

A small, but promising beginning.

Perhaps one day Virginia will follow the example of Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and other states that forbid hunting in cemeteries.

I'll let the sportsmen at have the last word.

In response to the eternal question, “Any body [sic] have good luck deer hunting in a cemetery?” ozarkghost wrote, “Not only no but H E Double Hockey Sticks no to hunting in a cemetery!”

“Taking any life in a cemetery seems to me some kind of a sacrilege. I am sure you could find a better place than a cemetery to hunt.”

“I have not had the experience, and I doubt that any hunter would be given permission to hunt in a cemetery,” wrote 99explorer. “I also suspect that a hunter would have more success hunting in an oak grove or apple orchard. Just sayin'.” —BP