On Moving and Returning Bodies: The Case of Nathan Bedford and Mary Ann Forrest

By now most readers of this blog have heard about the continuing discussions in Memphis and elsewhere on the fate of the bodies of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife Mary Ann. Debate over the Forrests, a monument commemorating the general, and the park in which they are currently buried commenced before the Charleston murders, with the name of the park being changed to “Health Sciences Park” (really?) on Union Avenue (that should bring a smile to some faces). In the wake of those murders and the discussions that have ensued, the Memphis City Council took the next step, proposing to remove the Forrests’ bodies and return them to where they were originally buried, a place Forrest himself chose–a Confederate cemetery.

There’s also a discussion about removing the statue to Forrest that stands at Health Sciences Park, but I think that’s a different discussion and one that some would say hinges on the outcome of this discussion. It’s not clear to me how the Forrests stay if the statue is moved, and without the Forrests, the statue might well be moved elsewhere (including to the cemetery in question, where I believe it would be treated with more respect).

As you might expect, there’s been cries of outrage from various parties, but I think this particular case deserves more thoughtful commentary. After all, this act honors Forrest’s wishes, not the wishes of those who moved the bodies before (thus establishing that it’s okay to move bodies, right?) or the wishes of some folks today. Andy Hall’s offered a very sound case for returning the bodies from whence they came.

I endorse that position given the particulars of the case. The return of the bodies will allow people to see Forrest at rest where he wanted to be at rest, and the conditions of the cemetery should improve as heritage groups work to enhance it. That some people advocate this course of action for different reasons should not deter those who seek to honor Forrest from finding this a desirable solution.

Bodies have been moved before. Ask Forrest. Sometimes people threaten to move them because of the condition of the place where they rest. Ask the descendants of Ulysses S. Grant. In this case, given the circumstances, I think the return of the Forrests to their original resting place is entirely appropriate and should be seen as an opportunity by those inclined to celebrate his life. It is true that I’m not among those people, but I don’t favor removal as a slam against Confederate heritage. Rather, the particulars of this case cry out for a more reasonable discussion.

So … another poll, and the comments section is open.

17 thoughts on “On Moving and Returning Bodies: The Case of Nathan Bedford and Mary Ann Forrest

  1. Bob Nelson July 16, 2015 / 2:30 pm

    The greatest thing about history is that our interpretation of it changes over time, else it would be boring and static and very few would study it at all. As someone who grew up in the 60s, I never imagined back then that it would take 40 years to remove the CBF from atop the South Carolina capitol building (in 2000). Or (flip side of the coin) that we would still have such bitter black-white feelings 50+ years later. We haven’t really come very far, have we? If Forrest wanted to be buried beside his wife in the Confederate section of Elmwood Cemetery, that’s where he (they) should be. Moving them in 1907 was part of the Confederate monument push in the early 20th century as C.S.A. veterans were dying in great numbers Was it wrong? I don’t know. It probably was right for the time. Who is to say that some time in the future, Health Sciences Park won’t be renamed John Jackson Smith Park in honor of the yet unborn John Smith, born in Memphis in 2016, who will find a cure for cancer in 2048. I think those that moved the bodies of Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann, probably did so based on the very best motives at the time. But now it’s time to move on.

  2. Goad Gatsby July 16, 2015 / 3:27 pm

    I like polls on your site. It in no way effects the outcome of events. It feels like I am voting in Greece.

  3. Rosieo July 16, 2015 / 4:24 pm

    I dont get why they moved Forrest. They could have put up the statue and named the park for him without moving him. Seems like a lot of trouble. Is the city where the park is significant to Forrest’s history?

      • Ira Berkowitz July 18, 2015 / 4:49 am

        Thank you for the link. Absolutely amazing read.

      • Rcocean November 4, 2015 / 1:29 pm

        Infamous? I don’t think so. Honest and truthful from a perspective which I don’t agree with. Foote’s writing on the CW are very good and he was an excellent interview. One of those guys who could ramble on forever and still be interesting.

  4. Sandi Saunders July 17, 2015 / 1:59 pm

    I agree, since they were already moved once to appease the SCV et al, then they can be moved back to appease those who think “honoring” them is a bit much in 2015. There are some truths this nation needs to face up to and his efforts in the KKK is but one of them. The SCV et al is never going to agree with much that America does anyway. It has never stopped us before.

  5. Debbie Page July 17, 2015 / 7:29 pm

    I have a question:

    I know that the park is on the National Register of Historic Places. Under that status, can Memphis legally move Forrest and his wife and the statue? Doesn’t that change the circumstances that put it on the National Register in the first place?

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 17, 2015 / 10:03 pm

      There are laws in place that would block the proposed movement of statue and remains, including state laws.

  6. M.D. Blough July 19, 2015 / 5:24 pm

    If the legal issues can be worked out (whether or not there are legal issues depends, I am reasonably sure, on whether or not the people objecting to returning the Forrests to Elmwood have standing to bring an action under any of the statutes involved), I’m in favor of returning the Forrests. To me, the most critical issue is that Forrest chose the Confederate section of Elmwood Cemetery as the final resting place for him and his wife. If they can be moved once because of motivations unconnected to any wishes expressed by either Forrest in making their final arrangements, then the principle has been established.

    I don’t think there’s a workable one size fits all solution to every use of the “Confederate Flag”

  7. Danny Clark November 3, 2015 / 8:49 am

    This man and his wife are dead. they cannot hurt you or help you. Let them rest in peace.

    • Al Mackey November 6, 2015 / 12:10 pm

      General Forrest wanted to rest with his men, but he was moved away from them. Shouldn’t he return to rest with his men, where he wanted to be in the first place?

      • M.D. Blough November 6, 2015 / 10:33 pm

        I agree. What I find outrageous was the original move of the bodies to suit the political purposes of the time. All returning the Forrests’ bodies does is comply with their wishes.

  8. Danny Clark November 3, 2015 / 8:51 am

    Self righteous hypocrites judging the dead. May God have mercy on your soul.

    • C. Meyer November 3, 2015 / 11:13 am

      What are your thoughts about the people who moved him from his original resting place in the cemetery to the park where he is now? Do you think God will have mercy on their souls?

    • Al Mackey November 6, 2015 / 12:08 pm

      Judging others for being what one claims are “self-righteous hypocrites.” Would that make one a “self-righteous hypocrite?”

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