Category Archives: Deaths Garden Revisited

Death’s Garden: Never Let Your Feet Get Cold

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Carrie with Granduncle Blick and cousin Tim on the Property.

by Carrie Sessarego

Tucked in the folds of the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, near the entrance to Sequoia National Park, there’s a tiny town called Three Rivers, California. My family always went to Three Rivers in the spring or summer, so in my memory it’s always a place of pale green grass rapidly drying to gold and wildflowers everywhere. For generations, Burnhams and Wells and Hardins and McGowans had married each other, giving rise to a far-travelling family that was anchored by the tiny cemetery in the tiny town.

Our family reunions were held on a piece of property named, without irony, “The Property.” People circled their RVs and tents in a meadow bordered by soft woods. Every night we had a campfire and sang songs like “Charlie and the M.T.A.” and “Shine on, Harvest Moon.” At least once per reunion, we visited our kin at the Three Rivers Cemetery, which was founded in 1909. Parts of the cemetery are watered and mowed, but the older areas are wild. As a child, I saw the cemetery as an extension of The Property. That made it my territory; a place where I could run and play on the mowed lawns and the weedy edges of the cemetery, while the grown-ups did whatever it is that grown-ups do.

The first funeral I remember going to was that of my aunt (technically, my grandaunt-in-law), who gloried in the name Ruth Vernealia Pell Wells. Ruth and her husband, Blick Wells, had a motorhome and travelled all over the country. One Christmas they parked in my grandparents’ driveway for the holidays. My only memory of Ruth is from that year, when Ruth invited me in and taught me how to make an Ojo de Dios Christmas ornament. Soon after, she died of cancer and was cremated. As per her request, her ashes were buried at Three Rivers Cemetery in a Taster’s Choice coffee can, tied with an orange strip of fabric. (It was her favorite color.) Afterwards we all went back to The Property and had another bonfire and sang late into the night.

It’s hard to be reverent in the face of death once you’ve watched your grandaunt be buried in a coffee can. I never felt afraid at Three Rivers Cemetery. How could I? Any ghosts were ghosts of my relatives. The worst they might do to me was tease me about that time when I was ten that I sat on an ant’s nest during a reunion. There’s my great-grandpa, who showed me where the harebells grew on The Property. There’s Aunt Linnie (technically, Great-aunt Linnie) who survived a terrible car crash as a teenager and, as a result of her burns, only had one fingernail. There’s Fred and Blanche Burnham, who lived in Rhodesia and taught Lord Baden-Powell how to be a scout before heading off to the Klondike Gold Rush. There’s Mark, the teenager who died in the same car crash that claimed Linnie’s fingernails, and poor little Baby Hardin, born and died in 1923.

The last time I went to Three Rivers Cemetery, it was to bury the ashes of my granduncle, Blick Wells. Blick, a rambling man who had a girlfriend outside of Anchorage, took me under his wing when I moved to Alaska. He showed me affection and acceptance and gave great advice. “My dear,” he said, “never let your feet get cold.”

When it came time to bury him, my husband and I drove four hours from Sacramento for the funeral. We had just gotten a dog. We brought him with us and tied him under an oak during the service. My three-year-old daughter ran around the cemetery just as I had once. The grasses around the cemetery were dry and golden in the California heat. No one’s feet could possibly get cold under that California sun. My husband helped Blick’s son (called, inevitably, ‘Blicky’ by the family) cover the ashes with dirt.

CocoaSince then, The Property has been sold and the latest relatives to pass on have been buried elsewhere. The Sacramento relatives are generally buried at East Lawn Memorial Park in Sacramento. It’s a pretty place, and it’s convenient to the mourners, but it’s much too manicured for me. My tentative plan is to donate my body to science and have any leftover ashes lowered into the Three Rivers Cemetery ground in an Equal Exchange Hot Cocoa can. I’m hoping that someone will bring a dog, someone will bring a small child who will run around the oak trees, and someone will remember all the verses to “Charlie and the M.T.A.” The mountains that edge Three Rivers will stand guard and harelips will bloom on their hillsides. That’s not scary. That’s family.

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Carrie Sessarego with fanCarrie Sessarego is the resident ‘geek reviewer’ for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, where she wrangles science fiction, fantasy romance, comics, movies, and nonfiction. Carrie’s first book, Pride, Prejudice, and Popcorn: TV and Film Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, was released in 2014. Her work has been published in SEARCH Magazine, Interfictions Online, After the Avengers, The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 9, Google Play Editorial, Invisible 3, and Speculative Fiction 2013: The Year’s Best Online Reviews, Essays, And Commentary. When not reading and writing, you can find Carrie speaking at conventions, volunteering for the Sacramento Public Library, and getting into trouble with her mad scientist husband, Potterhead daughter, mysterious cats, and neurotic dog.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

I am jump-starting the Death’s Garden project again. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Death’s Garden: The Cult of Saints

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Photo by Loren Rhoads. Mourner in Cypress Lawn.

by Tanya Monier

It’s spring break of my senior year of high school and, for the second time, I am at the end of my pilgrimage. Mom let me drive down here after I swore I’d get back in time for Easter Mass and not try to skip out by complaining I was tired. I’m staying at Sarah’s — she’s a friend who moved to Irvine when we were 12 — and she drove me here today.  She remembered how to get here from a year and a half ago.

Ocean View. The first time Jessica told me that Michelle was at Ocean View, I thought it sounded like a suburban apartment complex. I asked her to repeat herself.  Stupid name for a cemetery, but here we are on prime oceanfront real estate, looking down at the hazy blue Pacific. We the living, of course.  The ones whose families paid so much money to put them to rest here can’t see a fucking thing any more.

From up here, I can see a few skateboarders, pinwheels someone stuck into the ground, and some people who look like they’re having a picnic. The land is unbelievably smooth: thick, plush, well-tended grass. I’m almost surprised that I don’t see golfers. This place is big. Really big.  The first time we came here, Sarah and I got lost, despite the map we picked up at the office. We parked the car in the right area, on Hillcrest Lane, but I couldn’t find Michelle.  I thought she was in the wall — coffin high-rise, space-saver — and I just about got frantic looking for her.  When I found her grave, I dropped to the ground and started sobbing. I was so relieved.

“Loving daughter,” that’s all it says on the bronze plate in the ground, other than her name and the dates; I guess it’s too expensive to get a good quote. I had Sarah get out of the car and take pictures of me looking at the grave. I took a couple of the bronze plate. When I got back home, the others all wanted copies, because no one else could afford to get down here and see her for themselves. Relics: we were all pretty morbid back then. We kept any tangible objects connected to her that her mom didn’t demand we return, even the little plastic dinosaurs she used to collect. I got the comedy/tragedy hologram pendant she always used to wear. I’m wearing it today. It’s become my trademark. I hold on to it like a talisman during tests, because Michelle was brilliant.

Michelle killed herself when I was fourteen and a half. She was eighteen. It was a failed cry for help.  The afternoon before her high school graduation, her mom found her dead on her bedroom floor. This was two hours after they’d had a fight which ended with Michelle screaming, “I wish I was dead!” Her mom just walked out of the house.

Asphyxiation: Michelle wrapped a pair of pantyhose twice around her neck, twice around each wrist, knelt on the floor, and pulled down until she passed out.  There weren’t any knots in the nylons. She just held the ends in her hands. She wasn’t stupid: she knew that when she blacked out, her grip would relax. Some time during the struggle to choke herself into unconsciousness, she must have shoved her fists under her ankles. When she passed out, she fell backward. The nylons stayed taut.

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The Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

I met Michelle through Jessica, a friend in “The Scene,” during one of our weekly trips to go dancing downtown. We were all “Gothics” or “death rockers” with black hair, black clothes, black attitudes, and white skin (by natural or artificial means — I had to use a little white clown makeup as a base). Our theme was “Every Day is Halloween.”  Michelle wasn’t really part of The Scene, but she and Jessica had just started renting a place downtown, so we all went over there whenever we could. Everyone else would drop acid or snort crank, but Michelle and I would get drunk and sit in the corner, talking and rolling our eyes ironically at the others. She understood me. She even listened to me complain about my nonexistent love life. I never knew her stories until Jessica let me read Michelle’s diaries on the way to the funeral.

The funeral was packed. I don’t know what got into Michelle’s mom, but she wouldn’t let Jessica play the tape she’d made for the service. Michelle’s mom only brought one song — “Michelle” by the Beatles — which she had played over and over again.  Fourteen times before the eulogy: I counted each time it started again.  One of the girls with me had been frying the night before and she was freaking out so bad from that damned song that the others had to take her to the bathroom, where she threw up until she calmed down a little.  But we couldn’t get them to stop playing it.  I think it was a vindictive thing on her mom’s part.  That song used to be a favorite. Three years later, I still can’t stay in a room where it’s played. I never realized how often they play it in department stores and dentist offices.

I held Michelle’s boyfriend Mark while we walked up to the open coffin. I had to force him to look at her, because he was trying to convince himself that she was alive, lying there. One look and you knew she wasn’t. Whoever did her makeup obviously didn’t know her. They had glued her eyelids and mouth shut. I could actually see the glue shining under her eyelashes.  Her face looked collapsed, like a frog’s.

What followed for me was predictable enough, I guess:  the guilt of surviving, an almost accidental alcohol and downer overdose on the four-month anniversary of her death, months of counseling. First my parents took me to a hospital psychiatrist. At our only meeting, he sang all of “Rocky Raccoon” to me — more than three minutes — just so he could point out the significance of the line “I’ll be better just as soon as I am able.”

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The original Angel of Grief, English Cemetery, Florence. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

The counselor I stuck with, Michele (an ugly coincidence that almost kept me out of her office), helped me deal with the guilt. She laughed at my jokes like I was a real person, not a patient. Michele was also the first one to agree with me when I started saying that I wanted to see Michelle’s grave. I think she was kind of concerned, though. She told me about the Cult of Saints, some early Christian tradition of going on pilgrimages to visit the graves of saints and martyrs. The pilgrims thought that they could be healed by kissing the bones of the dead. Michele didn’t want me to expect too much, I guess, but it didn’t sound any different than my mom keeping holy water in the fridge for us to drink when we got sick.

I don’t know when, but at some point, love-of-life started to outweigh fear-of-death as my reason for staying alive.

I come to Michelle at Ocean View to thank her, to let her know that I never forget her. This time, I don’t need to go over the old stuff. I just tell her about stuff she missed, like the new Love and Rockets album. I tell her about Adam, too, and my now-existent love life. I don’t talk loud. I just kneel beside her and kind of mutter, just loud enough to get the vibrations into the air. If the dead can hear, that should be enough.

There’s a hole at the top of the bronze marker. I guess that’s how people get their flowers to stand up if they don’t bring a vase. Flowers. I never brought flowers, never thought about it. Anyway, the hole at Michelle’s place is empty. I reminds me of a periscope. I frighten myself by wondering how far I’d have to dig my hand into the hole before I’d touch the top of her casket. Finally, I look down the hole and see that it’s a metal cylinder with a base, so I relax. I don’t even have to think about testing it for depth.

By now I’m leaning on my arms in the grass beside Michelle. I notice that there are a hell of a lot of ants running on her marker. Then I see something that will make me sick for a long time: a thick green worm hauling itself straight up out of the grass. It stands up at the base of the marker and waves a little, getting taller and taller until it gets top-heavy and curls like a fishhook. I know she’s down there, where it came from, and I think of what worms do… I want to make sure they burn me, don’t dare put me down there like her. I can’t touch the worm or knock it away. I just jump up to go. Sarah’s still waiting in the car.

This essay originally appeared in the original volume of Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries.

tanya-monier***

Tanya Monier is a teacher, a storyteller, a blogger (the-happy-badger.blogspot.com) a crafter, a mother, a wife…not necessarily in that order. All her tattoos are on the inside.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

I am getting ready to finish the Death’s Garden project. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch SOON. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Death’s Garden: Pastrami in Paris

deportationby Loren Rhoads

Holding hands inside my coat pocket, Mason and I strolled through the Marais district and enjoyed the watery yellow sunshine. Paris in January was cold. We paused beside a worn brick wall to read the plaque bolted there. Struggling with my imperfect French, I translated the plaque as saying the pockmarks on the wall were bullet holes, left behind when the Nazis shot martyrs.

Our guidebook added that the Nazis and Vichy French dragged 75,000 Jews down this same street on their way to concentration camps.

I was 28 and had no reference for what had happened there, other than a trace of World History in high school. Jews had seemed exotic in the small Michigan farming community where I grew up. Until I met Mason, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t, in some vague way, Christian.

Mason endured his Bar Mitzvah to placate his grandmother. That same grandmother still refused to allow anything of Japanese or German manufacture into her home. She’d disowned Mason for marrying me — without ever meeting me — even though I’d offered to convert. My blood wasn’t Jewish, so our children would not be Jewish. That mattered to her more than her relationship to her only grandson.

Being ostracized was hard for me to understand, harder still to accept. I would never be one of them. Love could not transform me.

It amazed me that Mason loved me enough to cause a rift in his family.

Afterward, to my disappointment, I found that prejudice ran both ways. My Presbyterian mother said that she didn’t care that I was marrying a Jew, but she would have preferred that he at least practiced his religion. My Baptist grandmother sniffed, “At least he isn’t Black,” but raised no objections at the wedding.

I’d grown up so sheltered; I hadn’t seen the prejudice in my own family. Visiting Europe for the first time opened my eyes to the scope of bigotry against the Jews.

Rue des Rosiers, the street we strolled, had served as the main artery of the historic Jewish quarter of Paris. The quarter had been created in the thirteenth century when King Phillipe Auguste “invited” the Jewish merchants living in front of Notre-Dame to move outside the newly built city wall. The name Rosiers referred to the rosebushes that grew against the outside of the wall. I admired people who found beauty, despite their exile from the safety of the city.

After some consultation of the map, Mason led us to Jo Goldenberg’s deli. Paris Access reported that on August 9, 1982, masked gunmen threw a grenade into the deli, then opened fire as people fled. They injured twenty-two customers and killed six. The PLO took credit for the murders. The gunmen remain unknown.

While we were in Paris, the First Gulf War tore apart Iraq. Throughout Paris, armed soldiers guarded the national treasures. Mason and I read the Herald Tribune each day, dreading the news that Iraq had unleashed germ warfare against Israel. Half-convinced that Jews and those who loved them were safe nowhere, I feared entering the deli.

Added to that, I’d only been in one deli in my life: Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, which my mother-in-law proclaimed was as good as those she’d grown up with in Brooklyn. In big, dark Zingerman’s, I’d kept to familiar foods like egg salad. I daringly ordered it on pumpernickel, which I’d confused with rye bread. In my defense, I’d had a purely white bread childhood. While I explored knishes and hamentashen and Doctor Brown’s cream soda at Zingerman’s, I remained a Presbyterian-raised girl only a couple of years off the farm. I didn’t know corned beef from pastrami. I just thought I didn’t like it.

Goldenberg’s deli was huge and bright inside. The people behind the counter bustled around in spotless white aprons. Their middle-aged patrons filled string shopping bags with packages handed over the counter wrapped in white paper.

Mason and I nudged each other forward. He wanted me to order, in my fractured French. I wanted him to do it, because I felt like such an outsider.

While he negotiated with the counterman, I wandered around the fringes of the salesroom, looking over the merchandise. I didn’t recognize most of it. What was matzo, or gefilte fish? Nothing had prices that I could see. I chose a bottle of wine that I hoped would be both inexpensive and palatable, a vin table rouge. I slipped it onto the counter as Mason got ready to pay.

“You want this too?” the man behind the counter asked in English.

I nodded, too shy to speak.

*

Mason and I stopped to eat in the little park behind Notre-Dame. We huddled together on a green bench. The buttery orange late afternoon sunlight gave little warmth. It flared from the stained glass windows of the great cathedral.

deportation2Nearby stood the Deportation Memorial, which honors the 200,000 French men and women of all races and religions murdered by the Nazis in World War II. One wall of the memorial is starred with 200,000 backlit crystals: one burning for each life snuffed out. Visiting the memorial the previous day had been the first time I’d encountered the command to “Forgive, but never forget.”

How could you forgive?

How could you live without forgiving?

Mason unwrapped the sandwich and handed half to me. The pastrami piled so high I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to bite it. Instead, I contented myself with nibbling. The pastrami had a marvelous metallic tang beneath its mouthwateringly salty flavor. The caraway seeds in the rye bread burst between my teeth. I laid my head against Mason’s shoulder and swooned, chewing with eyes closed in order to savor. I’d never had a sandwich so delicious.

We ate until we were thirsty, but Mason wasn’t comfortable swigging from the bottle of wine in the park. We decided to cross the Petit Pont back to our hotel in the Latin Quarter.
The Hotel Esmeralda dates from 1640. Huge yellow boulders, mortared together, formed the outside walls. We laughed that such a place would never survive an earthquake. A single steep, narrow stairway wound up from the lobby to the warren of rooms. We saw no such thing as a smoke detector or a fire escape. We found the place charming.

In our little room, I’d been reading The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I’d read the book as a child, but it came so much more alive for me now, in a hotel named for the Gypsy dancing girl across the river from the cathedral. Still, I’d had to put the book down in a moment of horror when I reached the crones gossiping over the Foundling’s Bed. On viewing the child Quasimodo, one of the women said, “I should guess that it’s a beast, an animal — the offspring of a Jew and a sow — something, at any rate, which is not Christian.”

My God, I thought. How could people have said such a thing, and meant it? I know that fiction does not equal reality, but twentieth-century bigotry had been so much worse than Victor Hugo could have imagined.

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That frosty January evening, our small steam-heated room remained chilly. Mason and I snuggled together in our clothes on the soft bed, pulling the blankets up over our knees. We each drank deeply from the bottle of wine, which turned out to be the perfect complement to the sandwich: rich and thick and slightly sweet. It chased the robust flavors of pastrami on rye across my tongue and touched a flush to my cheeks. We rested the wine bottle on the rickety nightstand and held the remainders of the sandwich carefully, so that pastrami did not slip between our fingers.

I thought I was in heaven, even before Mason produced dessert. Generally, I don’t like cheesecake. Mason regarded this, with amused resignation, as a character flaw. I agreed to sample a bite of this cheesecake, only a bite, when he held it toward me on his fork.

Jo Goldenberg’s was like no other cheesecake I’d ever sampled. It melted inside my mouth, exquisitely sweet and creamy. It tasted not too rich, not at all cloying. The texture was just dense enough to be solid, but not gummy like the cheesecake my mom made from a box. The subtle aftertaste of lemon lingered on my tongue.

I found it impossible not to watch as the fork traveled from the dwindling slice in the small white box to Mason’s mouth. He laughed and fed me the final bite.

And then I was in heaven: safe in the arms of the man I loved, cozy and sated in an old hotel in Paris, tasting the trace of sweetness on my husband’s lips.

“Pastrami in Paris” was originally published on Trip Lit in January 2003. It was reprinted in 2014 as part of All You Need is Morbid on Wattpad.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

I am getting ready to finish the Death’s Garden project. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch SOON. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Death’s Garden: Mausoleum Walk

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Lulu Fellows photographed by Mason Jones

by Karen Kruse

It was a gloomy afternoon with a gentle summer rain coming down. I had been doing research at a local library and stopped on the way home to pick up information regarding the history of Rosehill Cemetery for a future project. Once I received the map of grave locations, my head started spinning. Famous Chicagoans were buried all through the place. The draw was irresistible.

Despite the drizzle, I had a glorious time snapping photos. I was about ready to leave when I decided to see if I could get into the public mausoleum. Everything else had gone right, so I figured luck was with me.

The massive door at the main entrance was locked. Undeterred, I drove around the perimeter of the mausoleum, getting out of the car at each door to check, but they were all deadbolted. To my delight, I finally found an entrance at the rear of the structure, complete with red carpet and a door standing open. I locked my purse in the car, slung my camera over my shoulder, and stuck my keys in my pocket. I would only be inside a moment.

As I walked into the mausoleum, eerie organ music greeted me. I decided that I’d rather be thrown out of a mausoleum than locked in one. Going in search of whoever was there to let them know I was inside would be the smart thing to do.

I found Jim, in typical ground’s crew garb, bent over a bench in the office, scribbling something. I made sure to make lots of noise so not to scare him half to death. He was glad I stopped to let him know I was there. He asked if I had seen the Shedd Chapel. When Jim found out that’s exactly what I was hoping to see, he offered to take me on an impromptu tour.

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A Muse in Rosehill, photographed by Loren Rhoads.

We traipsed down hallway after hallway, admiring beautiful stained glass windows in each crypt. In Rosehill’s mausoleum, a black marble diamond inlaid in the white marble doorframe of the individual burial rooms indicated genuine Tiffany windows. They were breathtaking.

I don’t know if I’ve seen too many horror movies or what, but suddenly I realized I was alone in a mausoleum with somebody I didn’t know. We had turned so many times, I had no idea how to get out. To make matters worse, I caught Jim checking me up and down. The dialogue in my head rambled between, “Are you nuts?” and “This is so cool!” I tried to enjoy the tour and be social.

It wasn’t long before we walked into the magnificent John G. Shedd Memorial Chapel. The room was decorated exclusively in white marble: walls, benches, even a permanent lectern. A few feet behind the lectern were marble steps flanked by two marble columns topped by urns. A heavy brass gate marked the entrance to the burial room. Peeking through the ornate metalwork, I saw a three-sectioned Tiffany window in breathtaking shades of blue.

After my initial awe, I snapped back to reality as Jim told me photographs were not allowed. Hm, I thought, perhaps I could use my camera to smack him over the head.

Jim suggested how the room must have looked in the past, with mourners dressed in top hats and tails and the women in elegant gowns. This “lowly” gravedigger had the ability to paint a vivid picture and we were swept back to another time. The room seemed filled with a benevolent spirit, but I was nervous. When the moment passed, Jim asked if I wanted to see the burial vault of Richard Warren Sears, the merchandising giant who founded Sears & Roebuck.

Through a dimly lit archway, we walked into a smallish hallway like something out of Dark Shadows. My mind started to get the best of me, alone with this stranger, surrounded by dead people. Dread enveloped me. I was very aware of Jim’s presence and was ready (as I could be) to defend myself if I had to. I figured nobody would ever find my body. Nobody even knew I was at the cemetery, let alone in the mausoleum. I was still wondering how I was brave enough to walk into the mausoleum in the first place. My skin crawled, but I marched on.

We walked to the end of the hall to view the Sears family vault. Sears’ crypt was beautiful, made entirely of white marble with elegant gold writing. It was a fitting resting place for a man of such merchandising vision.

Steps from Sears’ resting place was his own entrance. The door had been designed into the building, so his crypt just happened to be next to it. I could see the road outside through the dead-bolted glass door. I felt trapped.

Sears’ ghost has allegedly been seen in top hat and tails leaving his crypt, heading toward that of his rival in life, Aaron Montgomery Ward. After admiring Mr. Sears’ burial chamber, it was only fitting we see Mr. Ward’s as well. Mr. Ward and his family rested behind an ornate brass gate, which Jim joked needed dusting. Beyond the gate, all you could see was a wall, behind which the residents presumably rested.

By now, many of the crypts looked the same, but Jim insisted I follow him. He wanted to “show me something.” I was terrified as we walked down a dead-end hall. Was this where he put me on the meat hook? Nope, he wanted to show me a delicate pink-flowered Tiffany window. He said he didn’t get down that way to see it often and wanted to share his favorite with me. My heart pounded.

As long as I was around, Jim was determined to show me everything. We glided up an elegant white marble staircase to the second floor. Here, the crypts were oppressive. Behind the iron gates, they looked like jail cells. I kept thinking that any time now, Jim would push me into one of them. He beckoned me to look inside, but I kept my distance. Still, they had character and I was glad to visit them.

I figured the tour should be about over and Jim would return me to the entrance with the organ music. Instead, he had one more stop planned: he wanted to show me the basement. All the horror movies I’d ever seen played through my mind. While my head said, “Don’t do it! Don’t go in there!” my mouth said, “Sure.” Jim happily led the way, while I wondered how long it would be before anybody figured out I was missing. The basement lights were off, but Jim offered to run ahead to snap them on. I was convinced he was going to get a chainsaw. My body could be hidden quite well in the uninhabited vaults here.

Now I know why the blonde in all those B-movies lets the stranger in the house and does all the stupid stuff we, the audience, tell her not to do. I did it, too. After a brief glimpse of the basement, I decided I preferred the first floor and headed back the way we had come. No, Jim had another stairway he wanted me to try. Was this the one where I ended up in the torture chamber? The circular stairway wound through rough-cut rock. I was relieved when we made it back to the first floor.

My tour over, Jim led the way to the entrance with that beautiful organ music. It never sounded so good. Later I realized it was taped, sort of Muzak for the dead.

Back to reality, I was sad to leave my wonderful adventure behind, but couldn’t wait to tell everybody my great story. I thanked my guide for a nice time, but never shook his hand. Only later did I wonder if he was of this world or the next.

This was originally published in Morbid Curiosity #8. It’s reprinted here with Karen’s kind permission.

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karen-kruseauthor

Karen Kruse is the author of  A Chicago Firehouse: Stories of Wrigleyville’s Engine 78You can order a personalized, autographed copy of the book through her website: www.achicagofirehouse.com.

Her work has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

I am getting ready to finish the Death’s Garden project. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch SOON. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Exhuming Corpses for Fun and Profit

Winged skull photo by Loren Rhoads.

Winged skull photo by Loren Rhoads.

by Paul Stansfield

Whenever I tell someone that I’m an archaeologist, the typical response is something like, “Cool. I’ve always been interested in that.” Then when I describe a common site, their eyes invariably glaze over. I certainly understand it: they’re used to seeing dramatic things like Egyptian tombs or Mayan temples on television or in National Geographic. A few projectile points or the remains of a firepit (things that contract archaeologists like myself commonly encounter) usually aren’t interesting to a layperson.

However, mention that you’ve exhumed graves and your audience usually perks up. Many people pepper you with questions. The ones that don’t ask anything usually are doing so because they find the concept revolting, but not tedious.

Burial projects aren’t that common in my line of work, but even so, in my twenty years in the field, I’ve spent over two years exhuming. The jobs have ranged from a weeklong project investigating a tiny, six-grave family cemetery to a nine-month-long job with over 4000 bodies, which required a crew of 50 to remove them. The jobs have been in the Mid-Atlantic part of the country and were fairly recent historic burials: early 1800s up to the 1960s.

For a variety of reasons, the maps and overall burial records of the cemeteries were spotty. We had only a rough idea of where grave shafts were. Excavation of the graves was almost always begun by backhoes; the machines would remove most of the soil atop the graves until the outlines of the grave shafts could be seen. (Oh, I know the expression is “six feet under” but clearly, especially in pre-backhoe days and in areas with rocky or compact soils, many gravediggers figured three or four feet was deep enough.)

In some cases, graves were revealed by soil changes; for some, the actual coffin outline was apparent. For others, the presence of bones showed the grave’s location. Workers would typically place wooden stakes at the head and foot of each shaft, sometimes with nails connected by string that traced the outline of the actual shaft. Each grave shaft would then be numbered, its location mapped, and surveying teams would try to match up the graves to the existing maps (if any).

Then it was time to actually dig up the graves. The excavators, typically divided into two- or three-person teams, dug with shovels and discarded the dirt produced, until they encountered bone. At this point, the digging team used trowels, dustpans, and brushes to completely uncover the skeleton. Soil lying directly adjacent to the bones was passed through quarter-inch screen to recover any bits of bone or small artifacts (such as nails or buttons) not seen during the excavation. After the skeleton was uncovered and cleaned off as well as possible, a photograph was taken of it. (On smaller jobs, when we had more time to spend on individual graves, more photographs and drawings were done.)

Then the bones were removed. As they came out, basic scientific data was noted about them, either by a professional osteologist (bone specialist) or by the excavating team themselves, depending on the project. This information included the body’s approximate age at death, sex, and stature, if any or all of these were possible to determine (and many times they weren’t), along with any signs of disease or injury. The bones were placed in cardboard boxes (sometimes wrapped in plastic bags), along with plastic bags containing the coffin nails, metal hinges — and for some projects, pieces of the coffin itself — and any personal non-human remains found in the grave. These boxes were then usually reburied , typically in huge concrete burial vaults. For one job, they were cremated.

Several factors often complicated this simple procedure. The worst was water. Many of the cemeteries had relatively high water tables, so a grave shaft was sometimes moist or even completely underwater. We would use sponges, buckets, or water pumps, depending on the severity, but in some cases, there was no way to remove the water. You just had to do the best you could and hope no bones were accidentally left in the murky lake facing you. Another common problem was soil heavily infested with rocks and/or compacted by heavy machinery running over it. To get through these soils, pickaxes were necessary, which obviously increased the chance of inadvertently damaging the bones. Other obstructions were construction-related, such as concrete light posts or highway supports carelessly punched through the grave shaft. Those wreaked considerable havoc on the body inside.

The burial practices of the time period also complicated our job. The average grave shaft had more than one body in it (the most I heard of was seven). Frequently, the coffins had rotted to such a degree that all the bodies tumbled into each other in the shaft. It was often difficult — sometimes impossible — to tell which bone went with which person.

Finally, the preservation of the skeletons varied tremendously. Some were nearly pristine, with every single bone still present and firm. Unfortunately, these were rare exceptions. Most had suffered significant decay. Sometimes the few remaining bones were either powdery, mushy, or thin and fragile as tissue paper. The ribs, vertebrae (spine bones), hand bones, and foot bones were more rarely recovered, with the skull and long bones—the femur (thigh bone), tibia and fibula (lower leg bones), humerus (upper arm bone), ulna and radius (lower arm bones), and pelvis being the most resistant to decay.

Notice that I’ve only mentioned bones so far. Flesh was rarely found. By far the most common organ recovered was the brain. Other tissue remains I saw were sheets of fat (which resembled grayish globs) and kidneys/liver (which looked like reddish-yellow cornmeal).

Hair was rare as well, but every so often it would be recovered—sometimes entire ponytails, eyebrows, and even, disturbingly, pubic hairs. One body in a cracked concrete vault (which really helped preserve the deceased) also had extensive skin and ligaments. That was one of the very few bodies that had a strong bad odor: reminiscent of pickles, very vinegary. And finger- and toenails were exceedingly uncommon—to the relief of much of the crew, as many found these body parts oddly repugnant.

Some pathologies—illnesses or injuries—leave evidence on the bones. Although these were rare, all told we saw quite a few different injuries and conditions. Most of the injuries were bone breaks, sometimes showing healing with bad settings, which must have been excruciating. One man obviously had been hit by a large object such as a train; practically every long bone showed the distinctive spiral fractures which would result from such a collision. Another man had clearly been murdered; he had a blunt force trauma on the front of his skull, along with two gunshot wounds, also to the skull. One of the bullets, a .32 caliber, was recovered. It must have been lodged within him.

As for diseases, tuberculosis was by far the most common one seen, with its characteristic pits in the long bones, clavicles, and vertebrae. Several cases of syphilis were also found, including one man whose striations (bands) on his teeth revealed that he had congenital syphilis. Another skeleton’s pelvis was extremely thick and looked like coral, indicating cancer. Some bone abnormalities showed how a disease had been identified; we saw dozens of bones, usually skulls, with straight cuts through them that indicated that they had been autopsied. Other skulls with smooth holes bored into them, which told us that the person had been the recipient of trepanation.

Skeletons with extraordinarily rare conditions were also exhumed. Several microcephalic skulls were recovered, whose owners in pre-PC days were probably called “pinheads.” Another woman’s pelvis yielded a bony, slightly spongy softball-sized mass: either an ovarian tumor or a reabsorbed placenta/fetus. One radius with an extra “prong” was something our osteologist had never seen before.

Several other unusual items appeared in grave shafts as well. Most unsettling of all was the jar with a five-month-old fetus still preserved in formaldehyde. One grave contained a skeleton, along with a metal box, which contained the cremated ashes of another person. Also strange were the tiny coffins containing nothing but an amputated limb, which seems bizarre and absurd to me. I guess that’s the one funeral in which the “deceased” can give their own eulogy. What do they say: “My right leg was one of my closest friends. I’ll always remember its generous nature and delightful sense of humor”? One cemetery had a “witch’s bottle” buried in it—a magic charm consisting of a bottle filled with nails (and sometimes, bodily substances, such as urine, feces, menstrual blood, etc). This was usually evil magic to break up a relationship, so the witch could steal a partner. (I don’t know what excuse the witch used if the victim caught them collecting waste from their outhouse!)

Most burials contained no non-human remains, other than coffin parts. However, clothing was not uncommon; usually it was scraps and buttons, but occasionally certain articles were recognizable, such as a pair of pants or a dress. Shoes, belts, hats, and even underwear were sometimes found. Personal items were more unusual still, but we saw a variety: rings, necklaces, pendants, and earrings; religious items like rosary beads, crosses, crucifixes, and saint medallions; change purses and coins; matches; shaving kits; makeup kits; military medals; a truss; pocket watches; penknives; toothbrushes; combs; bottles and jars (including embalming fluid bottles, evidently included by a lazy mortician); dentures; gold teeth; a harmonica; clay pipes; and a doll. The rare glass eyes recovered usually caused a stir—it’s somewhat alarming to uncover a skull that appears to be staring back at you!

A common question we got asked is “Did it bother you to dig up dead bodies?” I’d have to say that for most of us, the answer would be “No.” Certain things bothered some or even most of the crew a bit, like say, a baby’s skeleton, or brains, or particular smells, but this seemed temporary; I can only recall a person or two who left a project early due to not being able to handle it psychologically. Clearly, I think that people had a good idea of what to expect when they signed on for this type of job. Perhaps the fact that we were basically dealing with skeletons and not fleshy bodies (usually) helped us to distance ourselves enough to get through the project. And yes, we’re human—countless jokes were told throughout the projects. The humor ranged from innocent, “Alas poor Yoric, we knew him well” to references in bad taste and kidding around about necrophilia. Possibly these were coping mechanisms, or simply our way of passing the time.

All joking aside, I was offended by the circumstances which warranted the projects in the first place. Several of them were like the movie Poltergeist, in that people or organizations claimed to have moved the bodies at a previous time, but had only actually removed a handful, along with every one of the headstones or grave markers. One place in New Jersey had obviously had a machine tear through over 60 graves.  It pushed the bones into a big pile, in a scene unfortunately reminiscent of the movie The Killing Fields. Furthermore, the initial reburial spot for one of the jobs had to be abandoned because a quick inspection of the cemetery showed over a hundred pieces of human bone scattered on the surface, near the burial vaults! Apparently, the cemetery’s caretaker was blind and never mowed the lawn. These incidents show a serious lack of respect for the dead.

In closing, my feelings about digging up the dead are as follows: Certainly I think that cemeteries should be well-maintained and secure against theft or vandalism. If alternate areas for the construction of buildings or roads are feasible, these should be opted for. Any transference of bodies is disrespectful to a degree. I’m sure that most people don’t like the idea of having their — or their relatives’ — remains exhumed, picked up, probably jostled, possibly damaged slightly, and finally moved to what is in most cases a mass grave or burial vault, with their bones encased in a cardboard box.

The unfortunate reality is that, in some cases, alternate areas aren’t feasible, occasionally due to issues like the discovery of forgotten, unmarked graveyards after construction has begun. In these cases, I think that companies and states should do what was done on the projects I’ve described: remove the bodies, using all reasonable care, and rebury them in another, safe cemetery.

That said, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy these cemetery projects. Even with all the physical and emotional issues I’ve mentioned, I still do find it interesting. Perhaps part of this can be attributed to a certain degree of morbidity on my part. “I never feel so alive as when I’m digging up the dead” is one of my jokey (perhaps of questionable taste) quotes. However, I always try to do the job as best I can and limit the negative aspects of what is overall an unfortunate situation.

This essay was originally published in Morbid Curiosity #8. It’s reprinted here with Paul’s kind permission.

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mt-washingtonDuring his day job as an archaeologist, Paul Stansfield does everything from finding 2000-year-old prehistoric projectile points, removing 150-year-old feces from historic outhouses, and digging up Civil War artifacts on battlefields. Otherwise, he likes to write, especially horror fiction. He’s had over 20 short stories published, in magazines such as Morbid Curiosity, Cthulhu Sex Magazine, Under the Bed, In D’tale, and The Literary Hatchet, among others. He also has stories in four horror anthologies: Undead Living (Sunbury Press), Coming Back (Thirteen O’Clock Press), Creature Stew (Papa Bear Press), and Creepy Campfire Quarterly Vol. 1 (EMP Publishing). A fifth anthology, The Prison Compendium (also from EMP Publishing) is due out this December 13, 2016. His personal blog address is http://paulstansfield.blogspot.com. His hobbies include drinking craft beer, tennis, and caring for the humongous tapeworm that lives in his intestines.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next couple months, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.