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County recommends survey of family cemetery at Pan Am Shopping Center

The Thompson Family Cemetery is adjacent to the Pan Am Shopping Center in Merrifield (photo by Amy Woolsey)

Before the Pan Am Shopping Center in Merrifield gets redeveloped, Fairfax County staff say the adjacent, centuries-old cemetery should probably get examined.

The Fairfax County Department of Planning and Development released a staff report last week recommending that mixed-use development be allowed at the shopping center, opening the door for property owner Federal Realty to build 585 residential units and expand its retail.

In addition to setting parameters for density, transportation improvements and other land use factors, the report reiterates that any development “should respect” the Thompson Family Cemetery, which predates the shopping center by almost two centuries.

However, the exact boundaries of the cemetery are unclear, according to the staff report.

“No documentation has been found that indicates the cemetery was delineated prior to construction of the Pan Am shopping center,” staff said, suggesting that a professional archaeologist conduct “remote sensing, specifically a ground penetrating radar survey…on the surrounding driveway and parking areas prior to redevelopment.”

While the cemetery only has two standing headstones, marking four burials, a 1989 walkover survey of the half-acre of land indicated that there are at least 23 possible grave sites, county staff said, citing an archived memo.

Known occupants include Confederate soldier Armistead T. Thompson, who died on Nov. 23, 1864 as a prisoner of war at Point Lookout, Maryland, according to an inscription on his tombstone.

From the staff report:

The Thompson family suggests that the first burial in the cemetery was in 1792 with burials continuing through at least 1917. Family lore suggests that there were many more burials. Furthermore, given the dates of cemetery use — prior to emancipation — the potential remains for burials of enslaved individuals on the property; at least one enslaved girl is noted in the 1850 census for Lawson Thompson who owned the property.

The Thompson family still owns and maintains the cemetery, which was nearly disturbed by workers seeking to build a storm sewer in 1979 until one family member, Alfred Thompson, blocked them with a sledgehammer and got arrested.

According to the archived Washington Post story, the Pan Am developers sought to take over the land when they built the shopping center in 1973, and plans to widen Route 29 also posed a threat.

The cemetery is now listed in the Fairfax County Inventory of Historic Sites. Calling it “a significant heritage resource,” the county’s current comprehensive plan prohibits any future widening of Route 29 from encroaching on the graveyard.

The newly proposed comprehensive plan amendment would maintain that condition, but it suggests a follow-up to the 1989 survey is needed.

“A new more detailed survey of the cemetery to determine the number of grave sites should be conducted using methods that would be more effective than a visual, walkover survey,” staff said.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed amendment at 7:30 p.m. on June 28, with the Board of Supervisors following at 4 p.m. on July 25.

Federal Realty’s redevelopment plan is still under review by county staff and won’t go through the public hearing process until after the amendment gets approved.

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