A cemetery may not be where one would expect to find the racial justice movement, but several Kansas City area cemeteries have been challenged about Confederate monuments found within their boundaries. An October 2020 Kansas City Star article reported on Fairview Cemetery in Liberty, Forest Hill & Calvary Cemetery in south Kansas City and Union Cemetery near downtown Kansas City. Each of these cemeteries responded differently to their racial justice challenge, and for the City of Liberty, the dispute continues to intensify. The Confederate monument dilemma may be more common in the Midwest and the South than most realize. As the Star article reports, several other Kansas City area cemeteries also contain Confederate memorials.
When challenged, cemeteries do not want to be caught flat-footed like Forest Hill & Calvary Cemetery. Forest Hill is located within a black community and has one of the area’s larger obelisk monuments dedicated during the “Lost Cause” movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The cemetery, owned by a national company, turned to its “reputation management” department for a written response:
… the [owner], wishes the monument were gone. Were it up to the company, the sanctity of the individual Confederate graves, marked with the letters CSA, for Confederate States of America, would be preserved. But the monument erected in 1902 “In Memory of Our Confederate Dead” would go. …. Unfortunately, this is an expression of free speech of a private party. Had this monument been erected in a common easement, we would have already removed the statue.
The problem with this response is that there is no right of free speech that accompanies the purchase of a grave space. Cemeteries reserve the right to regulate decorations, markers and monuments to maintain the decorum of the cemetery and avoid offense to families that come to visit their relatives’ graves. A national company knows very well that a grave purchase conveys limited property rights, and not a fee simple estate. To suggest otherwise fuels the misconception among lot owners that that may do what they wish with their lot. While the ‘freedom of speech on private property’ defense may seem to a quick way to neutralize a racial justice challenge, it can easily be proven as disingenuous, and harmful to the cemetery’s reputation.
In our next post we will address the first step in preparing a response to the Confederate dilemma: distinguishing a memorial to a dead soldier from the Lost Cause monument.