Finding A Place For President Polk's Body To Truly Rest In Peace The body of former President James Polk may be on the move again. He's been buried on the grounds of the Tennessee state Capitol, but there's discussion about moving his remains to his former home.
NPR logo

Finding A Place For President Polk's Body To Truly Rest In Peace

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/521776655/521823549" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Finding A Place For President Polk's Body To Truly Rest In Peace

Finding A Place For President Polk's Body To Truly Rest In Peace

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/521776655/521823549" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's been almost 170 years since President James K. Polk died, but his final resting place at the Tennessee State Capitol may not actually be final. Lawmakers in Tennessee have taken the first step needed to move Polk's body, and this would be the fourth time his body's been moved since he died in 1849. Chas Sisk with member station WPLN in Nashville reports.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: A small, white tomb chest high - for a century, this has been the resting place of President Polk and his wife, Sarah. Teresa Elam remembers picnicking here with her grandfather just downhill from the Tennessee Capitol.

TERESA ELAM: And so I can do that with my children, and now I'm doing it with our grandchildren.

SISK: Elam claims to be a distant relative of the nation's eleventh president, a niece seven generations removed. In his single term, Polk took control of the southwest from Texas to California, established the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Naval Academy and reorganized the Treasury and the postal system. Elam believes his body should remain here.

ELAM: I just have a lot of bad feelings about disturbing the grave but also taking him out of Nashville, which he truly loved. In his will, he wanted to stay here.

SISK: Well, not here precisely - actually about 400 yards away. And therein lies the dispute. Perhaps no president has had his remains fought over more than Polk. He passed away just months after leaving the White House, and from the beginning, his wishes were ignored.

Because he died of cholera, he received a quick burial in a city cemetery for sanitary reasons. The next year, Sarah Polk insisted he be moved to their Nashville home, Polk Place, as stated in his will. He lay there until Sarah died in the 1890s. With no direct heirs, a judge divided the estate, leading to Polk Place's demolition and the tomb's relocation.

THOMAS PRICE: And I would agree. It is an honor to be buried at the Capitol, but it's a little bit difficult to get to.

SISK: Thomas Price is the curator of the James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, Tenn. He wants the tomb moved an hour away to the only home still standing where Polk actually lived.

PRICE: Like the capitol grounds, we're a state historic site. Like the capitol grounds, were a national historic landmark. We've been open to the public since 1929 with one goal - to perpetuate the memory of the 11th president.

SISK: Price argues President Polk didn't intend so much to be buried in Nashville as to be laid to rest at his residence. Andrew Jackson's grave at the Hermitage and George Washington's at Mount Vernon would have been templates. The Tennessee Senate has approved moving Polk's remains, but the state House, the governor, the Historical Commission and the courts still have to sign off, setting up what's likely to be yet another protracted debate over where he should finally rest. For NPR News, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAMATIK SONG, "NO WAY OUT")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.