AVON — Jim Lee got a surprise a couple years ago from his co-worker, Stan Merritt.
"He came into work one day and said, 'I can't believe it, they moved the cemetery,'" said Jim, now retired.
Turns out Merritt had just learned that headstones had been removed from an old family plot to a makeshift memorial in 2001 at Avon Town Hall. He was incredulous that his ancestors' remains were still in the old cemetery, now in private hands just behind the Woodland Heights subdivision.
Jim had trouble understanding it too. With his daughter Lisa, they've set out to safeguard the historic cemetery with the help of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources' Division of Historic Preservation & Archaeology.
With Merritt's help, the Lees learned the location of the original cemetery. Upon further study, Lisa, currently the Face of MyINDY-TV 23, discovered that a former Avon High School classmate of hers had created the Merritt Memorial at town hall.
Andrew Prescott had intended on preserving the cemetery, which had been abandoned in 1881, for his Eagle Scout Project (he was a member of Troop 307 in Avon). The Merritts were some of the earliest settlers of what became Avon and Washington Township.
"That's when things started getting weird with the developer," said Lisa, who contacted Prescott about the project. "Stones ended up missing."
There was speculation that CP Morgan, the developer of Woodland Heights (now defunct) hid headstones in a barn. Other reports were that some of the remaining tombstones were found in a gully below a ridge by the cemetery. CP Morgan representatives reportedly said at the time, when they were in the process of buying the land, that they found the headstones that way. There weren't many laws then that guarded against the disruption of historic areas like this.
"If you owned the property, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted," said Jim, adding, "I didn't sense there was a concerted effort to try to do anything inappropriate. I think they did the best they could with what they had."
Indeed, the maps the Lees used in their own investigation last year dated back to the 1970s. Jeannie Regan-Dinius, a special projects coordinator for the DNR's historic preservation & archaeology division, whom the Lees contacted, says the Merritt cemetery wasn't organized to begin with. Research conducted so far indicates there are between 13 and 30 people buried there. Some were interred without headstones. What officials are going by today are sunken areas by big, old trees that are facing East or West - typical of Christian burial. But Regan-Dinius says that can be deceiving too. When a tree dies, its roots sink into the ground also.
Regan-Dinius used topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey to determine the exact location of the Merritt burial plot.
"There's no doubt the cemetery is here," she said. "Now it's just a matter of what we're going to do with this area to show it some respect. We need to make sure it's marked so nothing like dumping happens here."
It's right behind some houses in Woodland Heights. Some fence posts are still standing, though much of the fence is down. A woodchip-covered walking trail made by the neighborhood runs through it. Otherwise, the area is untouched.
"It's a really pretty area," said Lisa. "I can see why you'd want to build a house by there."
It's not uncommon to find cemeteries under these circumstances. Regan-Dinius says of the more than 11,000 cemeteries in Indiana, at least half have this issue. Her department learns of ones like the Merritt cemetery at least once a month. Some have dated back thousands of years.
"Because of a lot of things that have happened in our history, cemeteries like this have fallen by the wayside," Regan-Dinius said.
Preserving the Merritt plot has become a labor of love for the Lees. Lisa's brother and Jim's son Chris, a surveyor, helped map the site along with Chris' wife Heather in their initial investigation. They made a video of their research that can be viewed online at youtu.be/lipLaXIDRUw.
"The driving force for us is that all burial grounds are sacred," Jim said. "If something isn't accomplished with this project, (that history) will be forever lost. All you have to ask yourself is, ÔWhat if that were my family?'"
It's not just the Merritts who'd like the cemetery saved. That had been Prescott's intention all along with his Eagle Scout project.
"He still feels some sort of resentment for what happened," Lisa said of Prescott, who's now a U.S. Army captain living in Colorado. "They did a good thing, but their initial goal was to repair the original cemetery site. They were rejected and it upset everybody."
It's now ultimately up to Woodland Heights' homeowners association, which owns the land. Lisa says they're willing to consider renovation ideas for the cemetery, which could include a sign and having it fenced in.
"Hopefully we can work with them and make this a win-win for everybody," Regan-Dinius said. "It doesn't lower the value of their homes to have a cemetery next to them."
She doesn't foresee individual gravesites being marked, as that would take extensive and expensive archeological work. What's important is that state law now prevents anyone from building on it.
"For the family, I think that's the biggest thing - that it's protected," Regan-Dinius said.