Tag Archives: Deaths Garden

Death’s Garden: The Cult of Saints

Rhoads_Cypress Muse002

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: Mausoleum Walk

Rosehill Lulu002

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.

Death’s Garden: History Lives like Ghosts

Old cemetery on Hwy 20 in Warren, NY.

Old cemetery on Hwy 20 in Warren, NY. All photos by Trilby Plants.

by Trilby Plants

I love cemeteries. They are the keepers of memory and history. Every graveyard holds secrets and surprises. No, I’ve never seen a ghost in one, but I’ve seen family history in them. I’m an amateur genealogist and have visited cemeteries from New York to Iowa, searching for ancestors.

I knew there were two generations of my husband’s ancestors buried in an unnamed graveyard on Route 20 near Warren, New York. I’d found the information online, the burial place of my husband’s three- and four-times-great grandfathers and their wives. We had been there once before, but it was winter and we couldn’t locate some gravestones in the snow.

The next time we visited, I brought a collapsible shovel, as I intended to dig perhaps six inches of soil away from a tipped-over stone so I could take pictures of the whole inscription, and a wire brush to clean off lichen.

A fairly steep hill led up to the graveyard, with slate steps set in the slope. Some of the steps were broken; many were missing. It looked as if there had once been a wall that had collapsed. A narrow, mowed path led uphill. I was more mobile than my husband, so I promised to take photos.

Armed with my shovel and brush, I started off. The track curved around to the cemetery, which was a flat area halfway up the hill. The site was about half the size of a football field. It was surrounded by a dense stand of old trees that shaded the graves and cut the noise from the road.

Silence greeted me, along with the smell of freshly mown grass. I was surprised that an unused graveyard had been mowed. Several small American flags were stuck beside stones.

I walked a circuit of the cemetery, looking for other possible family members. Many of the stones and small monuments leaned or had fallen over. There were no other names I recognized, but in one corner I found the grave of a child with the family name I was looking for: Josephine Ely, who had died in 1847 at the age of five and a half. The surnames on the gravestones around her were not Ely. Perhaps she had been buried with a wife’s family, or was illegitimate. I probably will never know.

I took photos and then looked for more Ely gravestones. I found them in the center of the graveyard, one leaning and one tipped completely on its side. The letters on the tipped-over stone were partially readable: Simeon Ely, died June 19th, 1840, my husband’s three-times-great-grandfather. On the stone beside that one, only the name was barely visible: Margaret, his wife.

View from the cemetery.

View from the cemetery.

I was looking for this man’s father.

Beside these plots were two stones on their sides, the lettering on both completely illegible. Because there was an American flag by the stones, I assumed these were the father and his wife: Simeon the elder and Ruth. That Simeon died in 1817. He had served in the Revolutionary War army for two months, guarding the arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts.

I set to work on the toppled stone with my shovel. I intended to excavate a small area so I could take pictures of the entire inscription. I had dug up perhaps four scoops of soil when a large snake slithered out from under the stone. I shrieked and ran.

Telling myself it was a harmless garter snake, I gathered my wits and went back. The snake was gone, so I continued digging. I enlarged a trench around the stone, brushed away the lichen, and got my photos of the entire inscription.

I spent a moment contemplating the graveyard. Unlike the previous time I’d been there, it was a warm summer day under a clear, blue sky. A feeling of peace stole over me. The view over the valley was stunning. Afternoon sun reflected gold off a small lake in the distance. The trees and fields gleamed verdant green.

This is memory: the stories of those departed who pass their histories on to the living.

This was where Simeon Ely the elder had come after the Revolution to farm and raise his family. His son Simeon, although born in Massachusetts, grew up here. Simeon the younger lived to see his son born, but did not live to see his grandson born: my husband’s great-grandfather, James F. Ely, who enlisted in the Union army in 1861. James was wounded at the battle of Petersburg, Virginia. He survived a musket ball in his thigh, barely avoiding a leg amputation.

I have been to both James Ely’s grave and the Petersburg National Monument, where he was wounded.

All this history bore down on me when I considered that one of my great grandfathers — from near Watertown, New York — had also enlisted in the Union Army, but was mustered out after a couple of months because of a leg injury he had suffered while farming. Had my ancestor stayed in the military, he would have been at Cold Harbor with my husband’s ancestor — and also at Petersburg.

The coincidence of all that staggered me. It placed my ancestors and my husband’s in the real world.

The sun was going down and we still had one more graveyard to visit, so I gathered my supplies and started back to the car. I met a man who was driving up the narrow track. He rolled down his window.

What do you say to someone who confronts you as you’re walking out of a long-unused graveyard, carrying a shovel? “It’s not what it looks like,” I said, holding up the shovel and wire brush.

“Good,” the man in the car said. “I hope I don’t have to call the cops.”

I explained what I was doing.

He lived behind the cemetery. He and his wife were the unofficial guardians of it. He had a contract with the county to mow it in the summer. No, he told me, vandals had not toppled the gravestones. Time had done that, just as it had scoured the inscriptions from many of the markers. One of the earliest stones marked the grave of someone who had died in 1806.

He was interested in who I’d come to visit. He had an ancestor or two buried there he said, but he didn’t know the family I had been looking for.

“What about the flags?” I said.

“The wife and I get a list from the local VFW,” he said, “and we put them out on Memorial Day.” He shook his head. “Just the two of us. Nobody ever comes to see a ceremony. Then a week later, we take them down and save them for next year.”

“It’s good that somebody remembers,” I said. I showed him the digital photo I’d taken of my husband’s great-great-great-great-grandfather’s unreadable stone and the flag beside it.

“What war was yours in?” he said.

“The Revolution.”

“Long time ago. Lots of wars ago.”

It was. But I will remember, and so will my husband. Hopefully, now that there is so much online, our children and grandchildren will see pictures of the gravestones and know their ancestors’ stories and their places in history.

When I returned to where my husband waited in the car, I told him about my encounter with the snake and the man.

“I’m glad I don’t have to bail you out,” he said. When he looked at the pictures in the digital camera, he became quiet. “Wow,” he finally said. “There’s a flag.”

“That’s the one,” I said.

I looked out across the valley. “I see why they came here. It’s great farmland.”

We left the gravestones behind, but not the history. Our history lives like ghosts of the past in the images that populate the Internet and in our memories and in those of our children.

***

Trilby Plants writes for children and adults. She lives with her sports junkie husband in Murrells Inlet, SC, where she writes, knits and creates video book trailers for authors. TrilbyPlants.com

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, 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. The submissions guidelines are here.

Death’s Garden: The Graveyard of my Childhood

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Broken bud

by Claudius Reich

I was nine years old when we moved in next to the cemetery.

I suppose I didn’t always hate the suburbs; that came later.  From a crowded apartment in the middle of Boston, all of a sudden we were in this three-story Victorian house, just the four of us. Huge rooms everywhere — kitchen large enough to eat in, an entire bedroom suite for my parents, linen closet more capacious than some apartments I’ve lived in since. There was more room to be alone, even if only to read or daydream, without being under my family’s gaze every minute.

My sister and I had an entire floor to ourselves. We shared a playroom, where I could leave everything in place for the elaborate dynastic games I played with my sister’s Barbies, without having to clean it all up just when things were getting interesting. My favorite game was always having the main Barbie be the orphaned offshoot of an inbred, mentally unsound family. In the end, she finally drove the Barbie Camper off the cliffs (a table) onto the looming rocks below.

The basement was the first place I got to know well. The furnace sprawled right at the foot of the stairs like a sooty engine powering the house, keeping the floors level and the wall jutting upward. There were about half a dozen rooms down there — for laundry, for tools, for wine, plus a bathroom that never worked. During each heavy rainstorm, the basement would flood and we would have to put down old newspapers to soak up the rain, making trails along the floor that turned deep gray and squelched when you tiptoed over them. When the sun came out again, you had to follow those trails and toss the sodden newsprint into battered metal trashcans. I always tried to swing the papers so they’d rise just high enough that their center of gravity would pause over the mouth of the trashcan and then let them simply fall in.

It was always a little chilly in the basement, even in the New England midsummer. It always smelled like dirt somehow, in spite of the concrete floor: like a burrow, or as though the ground compressed under the house was trying to seep through.

Actually, the whole house had its share of dark corners. There was an attic of sorts off the third-floor bathroom, with an unfinished raw wood interior, no light of any sort, walls sloping toward its edges under the roof. I was afraid to explore the limits of the room; it seemed as if there would be huge nails protruding from the walls, invisible in the shadows, onto which you’d get pinioned and hang, like a chloroformed butterfly. My mother used to store toys there that we’d outgrown. They clustered toward the door (nearest place to drop them, I suppose). I could never decide if they were pleading to be let out or gathering into a mob to pounce. Desperate or gone feral, they gave me the creeps. I was always shamefully relieved to slam the door closed again.

The walk-in closets (of which there were several) weren’t nearly as frightening. They smelled of cloven apples and my mother’s clothes. Some of them even had their own lights. It was only when playing hide-and-seek in the house, when I got to be It and was standing in the closet, heavy door closed, counting, that I would think of the Victorian children’s tales I’d read:  of the little girl in ringlets and velvet who wandered into an abandoned room and couldn’t get out; of venturing into other worlds for an afternoon and coming out to find a century passed and everybody dead.  When I finished counting, I’d barrel out of the closet, smashing open the door with my shoulder, trying to find anyone as quickly as I could.  My sister and I used to search for secret passages — measuring the widths between the rooms, the dimensions of the closets and floors — but in retrospect, I’m kind of glad we never found one.

As adolescence approached, I started to spend time in the garage, to be out of hearing as well as sight. The garage was an old carriage house, with a second story and a basement. I don’t know if it had ever been used as a residence: servants’ quarters on its second floor, maybe? There was no running water, only vestigial electricity. The town was affluent but, I think, never quite that posh.  Likeliest the second story had always been what it was: a place to store things that were too good to throw away but not good enough to use. It was a fine place to just lie on an abandoned mattress on a summer day, baking in the heat but out of the glare of the sun. An odd collection of round holes of varying sizes had been drilled in the floor, from the diameter of a finger to the width of a hand, for no visible reason, through which one could see to the ground floor. It was the sort of pattern you didn’t care to stare at too long: they might have been a diagram of a strange solar system or a mesh for summoning strange creatures from the Cabala.

To get to the basement of the garage, you’d walk beside the garage, down the sharp slope overgrown with ferns, around to the back of the building. The basement had been essentially abandoned for a long time. The door was left open year-round; fallen leaves drifted in during the fall and there was already a respectable layer of mulch in the basement’s front half. The few discarded objects — tires, furniture — were already so broken-down as to be unrecognizable, just lumps in the smoothness of the floor. Nature had more than half-reclaimed this space. It would have been a great place to bury the body and grow mushrooms on the grave.

A short way further downhill, down into the green shade, was our border with the cemetery. (“Quiet neighbors,” as my father put it.) A chainlink fence, with just enough room for a skinny youngster to shimmy under it: lie on his back in the dirt and bend up the bottom of the fence just a little and slide on through. It was a huge cemetery, nowhere near full, the graves well-tended but still holding areas of wilderness. You could wander for hours without retracing your steps, never more than crossing your tracks every now and again. Few of the graves were at all interesting — calm, stuffy, respectable, much like the town itself — and post-Civil War at the earliest (which is not, for New England, very old).  Nonetheless, it was a fine place for a wander, ducking from one shade tree to another on a humid summer afternoon, or stomping through the angled snowdrifts that the wind built up against the gravestones.

I remember particularly one summer day when I was eleven or twelve. I had wandered into one of the undeveloped areas and, for no reason I could really explain, stripped off all my clothes (except for putting back on my sneakers, against the rocks and underbrush). I ran back and forth through the untended trees and untrimmed bushes, exulting on the top of a hill, sunlight all over me, none but the dead in their graves and the silent foliage to see me, feeling myself in a body for the first time. Then the sun went behind some clouds, the wind rose, I got dressed, and went home.

The fruit never falls far from the tree, they say. Sex and death, fear and solitude: the rest followed.

This piece opened the first issue of Morbid Curiosity magazine.

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Claudius Reich wrote for Morbid Curiosity magazine and had three pieces in the original Death’s Garden book.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, 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. The submissions guidelines are here.