Family members, owner at odds over locked gate at Union County cemetery

LUTTRELL (WATE) – Dozens of families in Union County want changes to a cemetery where their loved ones are buried because a locked gate has been installed at the entrance.

The private cemetery recently changed hands. Baker Cemetery sits about 100 yards off Highway 370 in Luttrell. Some of the gravestones date back more than 100 years, and for all those years, there was never a problem getting to the cemetery. You could drive to the site. Now, you can’t do that.

Family members have a hard time walking up the steep incline.

There’s a locked gate at the opening to Baker Cemetery. There had never been a gate like this one before. Family members who want to visit the gravesites of their loved ones now have to walk up a steep incline, a struggle for many of them. A hundred yards is a long way for Betty Tharp who has a bad heart.

“I’m just not able to walk the hill,” she said. “I was able to bring a vehicle and I went every day.”

Some of the gravestones at Baker Cemetery date back more than 100 years.

Some of the oldest grave makers date to the early 1900s, and many others are more recent.The gate was installed in late spring when ownership changed. The new cemetery proprietor also added a lock. A private property sign was posted and a series of new cemetery rules were established. There is a walk through gate, but the big locked gate is only unlocked for funerals and at six other times a year.

“It’s tough. I used to be able to drive my car up here, but not no more,” said Sharon Hensley.

More than a dozen people spoke with WATE 6 On Your Side, all upset about the new rules.

“She don’t need to lock the gate. She needs to take the gate down and let people go in there like they want to,” said Joe Kitts.

“They’ve got a walk-through gate, but these old people can’t walk up that hill 330 feet to the gravesite,” said Mike Hensley.

Families tenderly care for the gravemarkers. There are several generations of people buried there. Ashley Ogan, who recently inherited the cemetery, said they “put up the locked gate because drug paraphernalia was found at the cemetery.” She said their attorney felt “it’s the best thing to do” and they “are not trying to keep anyone from entering.” She said they “can call and we’ll unlock the gate.”

Larry Hensley and his wife Carolyn lost their son 27 years ago. Larry Hensley is the cemetery caretaker and says he’s seen no evidence of drug activity.

Families tenderly care for the gravemarkers.

“I never caught nobody doing anything illegal, never. I used to come here three or four times a week,” said Larry Hensley.

He said he has a key to the gate, but follows the owner’s rules. Many want to see the cemetery lock removed.

“I have a dad, grandmother and aunt who can’t walk this hill. To see their pain it hurts.,” said Jennifer Atkins.

The graveyard’s owner says under state law, cemetery owners may make reasonable rules to protect their property. Ogan said she’s done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, there’s a plea for compassion.

“Have a heart. If you have a heart at all, take that gate down so we can get up here in our cars,” said Betty Tharp.

Baker Cemetery family members hired an attorney who sent a letter to the new owner, stating a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling. It says the public has the right to ingress and egress from the public road nearest a cemetery. While the family attorney says it is unlawful to block the cemetery, Ogan said the law is on her side too.

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