When my mother died in 1970, my father purchased burial spaces in the Grandview Cemetery of Maryville, Tennessee. Maryville was our home town, and the location of Maryville College, where my father and mother had met as students, and where Dad returned to spend most of his life teaching.
Grandview Cemetery is well named. The “grand view” is its view of the Appalachian mountain range, locally bounded by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Out town has changed a lot over the years, but the grand view of the Smokies does not change. If you want your body buried in a cemetery, this is a good place.
Besides Mother and Dad, our family included myself and two brothers. My oldest brother is buried in France in a U.S. Military Cemetery. My other brother is buried in Grandview, as is Mother. My father’s ashes were interred in Mother’s grave when he died.
The last time I was in Maryville, I visited Grandview and tried to find these graves. I thought I could do this, but much has been added to the cemetery in recent years, and I never wrote down any locations. I tried to find someone in the cemetery office who could help me, but found no one.
What I did find the other day, while looking for something else, was the original purchase document for these cemetery lots. Included was a map and location information. Dad had paid $1,142 for 6 spaces in Grandview. He had made a down payment of $342 and agreed to make two payments of $400 each over the next six months.
As I glanced over the remainder of this old document, one of the “purchaser agrees to the following” statements stood out. I was stunned. The following was a legal and binding condition of the cemetery lot purchase:
“He, She or They are of the White and/or Caucasian Race and will make no attempt to obtain internment and/or internment rights for any other than of that Race in or on said plot and/or in or on the cemetery.”
I know, of course, that I could break this agreement now and no harm would come to me. I know that likely by this time there have been non-white burials in Grandview Cemetery. I assume that new purchasers of grave sites in this cemetery no longer sign such a statement. So is this just a relic of the past? We are now a multicultural society, and prejudice and discrimination are behind us, right?
Not so fast.
What of Arizona and the other states that today are passing laws allowing businesses to refuse their services to same-sex couples. Is discrimination based on sexual preference any better or worse than basing it on race? How much better is a law allowing a cemetery business to refuse burial sites to same-sex couples than one that does so based on skin color? And this is in 2014, not 1970.
Of course, the discrimination needs to be on “religious grounds” under terms of these laws. The business refusing the service must profess that gayness offends its religious beliefs. (This raises the question of how a business has a religious belief, and whose religious belief it needs to be, but no matter.) In passing these laws, the states say they are upholding the principle of religious liberty, which, they say, is under attack today. Thus do the victimizers portray themselves as the victims.
I can tell you from my personal experience growing up in Maryville that religion was the rationale behind segregated cemetery lots. It was the rational behind separate toilets and signs reading “Colored to the rear” on the White Star Line busses. Preachers preached about the Old Testament “curse of Ham” and used it to justify all types of discrimination against persons of color. They preached that god made black birds and blue birds and red birds, and that these do not inter-breed. They observed that god placed people of different races on different continents and obviously meant for them not to mix.
The days of that preaching is largely gone. But the idea that a business serving the public can discriminate against people based on religion is obviously not.