SPRING 2013 (Issue 78)

Chris Drew

Four by Eight

In Ashby Cemetery, a small, wooded graveyard nestled among the backroads of southern Indiana, a hand-painted sign hangs on the side of a rusty, corrugate-roofed shelter. For many years, this sign holds my grandpa’s name, address, phone number, and a few words telling visitors to contact him for donation information, or to simply mail him a check for upkeep of the grounds. As the cemetery trustee, he sits with my grandma in folding lawn chairs beneath the shelter for long hours each Decoration Day weekend, collecting pocket change and a few large bills from locals and out-of-staters returning to lay wreaths or florets at the markers of their ancestors. In some cases, the deceased are remembered as loved ones departed too soon, while in others, they’re only names carved in granite or limestone, long dead before the birth of their descendants. My grandpa keeps Ashby Cemetery mowed, raked, and generally tended for twenty years, and when he dies, we bury him beneath a scraggly white oak on the south end of the property.

A few years after his funeral, I find myself in Ashby Cemetery again. My dad has assumed the caretaking duties, and his name and contact information have been painted over my grandpa’s on the sign. A priority of my dad’s reign as trustee will be to map the graveyard, one plot at a time. People are still being buried here, and my dad would prefer not to drop them on top of an existing tenant. On a muggy July day, we pull into the gravel drive with ratty clothes, wide-brimmed boonie hats, and thermoses of ice water. The air is damp with summer humidity and the oaks and spruces sing with a chorus of insects. The rattle of coal trucks is faint on distant highways.

The cemetery rests rectangularly on a long half-acre of land with woods on each short end, north and south. There are also woods on the east side, but they slope immediately upward past the easternmost row of graves, rising and falling back through the wilderness on “spoil banks”—long, steep, repeating hills and valleys left over from strip mining in the early twentieth century. The west side of the cemetery borders a narrow, paved backroad that runs between two state highways a few miles in each direction. The southern portion of the cemetery is largely empty because a church stood there until it burned in the 1980s. This is where my grandpa lies, under the sprawling oak with no one buried near him. As a rule here, the further north you move, the older the stones get. We start in the southwest corner, not far from my grandpa’s grave, still slightly sunken and patchy after a few years of settling. Though we often walk by his headstone (which bears my grandma’s name, too, though she’s still alive), we rarely stop to look at it, focusing instead on names less meaningful.

Mapping the cemetery is monotonous work broken up by irregularities both frustrating and intriguing. Our methodologies aren’t exactly textbook. Occasionally making use of a tape measure, we record each tombstone and any inscribed names, jotting our findings roughly to scale on an old pad of yellowed graph paper one of my brothers probably used in his high school drafting class. It breaks down like this: if a headstone bears the family name “Davis” at its top with three Christian names listed further down, I mark off a plot six squares wide and six squares long, then subdivide this box into three graves using dashed vertical lines, each grave two squares wide. Across the top of all three, I write “Davis” in large letters. At the bottom of each grave, smaller, I write first names. For graves reserved but not yet inhabited, I write a capital “R” in the middle. In a crude way, these scribblings approximate the four by eight foot size of a standard burial space.

That’s the easy part. There are lots of hard parts, the first of which is reading stones. Since about 1940 or so, the residents of this particular corner of Pike County have chosen to mark their final resting places with granite markers—a good choice, because granite bears up well under weather, especially when polished and treated with modern chemicals. Names are grooved into the stone with crisp permanence. Because of this, mapping the newer parts of the cemetery, including my grandpa’s grave, moves along at a clip. The problem comes pre-1940, and especially pre-1900. These older stones are either untreated granite or that most abundant of Indiana rocks, limestone. The state boasts some impressive caves because running water dissolves limestone over time, but what makes a good cave makes a rotten tombstone.

The longer we spend in the cemetery, the more blank headstones we find, and by the end of the first week of mapping, the weight of this hits me. I know that people are buried quickly and inefficiently sometimes—criminals, paupers, shut-ins—but the voided stones I see are often ornate Victorian spires or large, monolithic slabs. One of the oldest is taller than I am, four-horned at the height of its taper, with spots of brilliant white marble peeking through a century of grime and algae. A soft-edged “1882-1901” rises from the surface. Nothing else can be deciphered. Once, anyone walking through the cemetery could see the names of these people who had made a home here. Now they see only rough stone faces, the surfaces of which crumble into salt-like crystals beneath my fingers. I learn not to touch. And though I’m heartened to find an occasional new stone among the old with a similar burial year—a sign that replacement stones are sometimes erected—this is an exception. Too many names are gone, and I wonder at the erasure of identities only a few feet below me.

We also discover graves with no markers at all, using what my dad calls “witchy wires.” I’m skeptical at the name, and when he explains the process my doubts don’t decrease. He’s brought home two lengths of heavy-gauge steel wire, maybe three feet apiece, from the power plant where he’s worked for thirty years. At the end of each, he’s bent a perfect right angle, creating two skinny L-shaped probes. At first, I think he intends to poke them in the ground and feel around for coffins, but their purpose is more mystical. Because of magnetic principles neither of us pretends to understand, but of which he has at least heard, these wires become a sort of makeshift ground-penetrating radar. The short ends are handles, which my dad holds in his lightly closed fists as if flying an airplane. He extends the remaining two-and-a-half feet of each wire in front of him, generally parallel to each other and to the ground. Then he walks slowly forward. When the wires cross over any interruption in the soil—a tree root, a water line, a casket—the two wires swing slowly inward forming a double span between my dad’s loose fists. He learned the trick from a local gravedigger who grew tired of hearing his backhoe tap the metal tops of unmarked caskets. I don’t know who taught the gravedigger.

Of course, there are tricks to this greater trick. The wires can’t sag toward the ground, and they need to be held with as loose a grip as possible. The witcher must walk a snail’s pace, giving the imperfect and slow magic of the wires time to kick in. And only with practice can he learn the almost imperceptible difference in sensation, in tug, between roots, pipes, and coffins. I doubt the method’s efficacy, but my dad simply smiles and lets me try for myself. My first attempt is at his house, trying to find the gas line. As I walk through the tough grass of his yard, nothing happens at first. I fine-tune my process—slower steps, looser hands—and the wires begin to pull, unevenly at first, like a compass near a magnet. Eventually, they close like gates as they cross the edge of the underground pipe.

In the cemetery, it takes a few days, but we begin to dowse graves with increasing precision. By the second week, we find that we can outline a casket on all four sides, finding ones that fit the standard four by eight plot, but also some larger and smaller. One is buried at an angle, and on a cloudy day in the older part of the cemetery, we find three small caskets laid side-by-side next to an adult woman, the mother of boys labeled on her marker only as “sons.”

It’s with my dad’s coffin rods that we discover the first unmarked graves, stepping over them repeatedly from all directions to be sure. Without fail, they fit the size of a human body in a casket, each with four distinct sides. Often, these graves are solitary, falling between kept headstones and family plots. In more than one instance, after discovering the grave, a little digging through the grass reveals the remains of a stone base long since covered with debris and earth. Other times there’s simply nothing left of whatever may have once marked the burial.

After several days of witching and clearing and mapping, we reach an open patch of ground at the northwest corner of the cemetery. This area has puzzled at least three generations of my family, as my grandpa often wondered about the smooth but deserted sod here. I can stand by a grave at the end of a row on the southern end of the cemetery and gaze north over a hundred feet to see the next one near the tree line. We always assumed that people chose not to be buried in this ground for some forgotten reason. Maybe it was rocky, maybe there weren’t enough trees for shade, or maybe it just had bad juju. Certainly, as it approaches the road, it drops steeply off into a shallow ditch—not the most romantic of final resting places. And yet there is a stone, the four-horned spire from 1901, which sits at the top edge of the slope.

As we begin mapping this empty section, we make a discovery. It’s not empty. Not even close. We check and recheck with the witchy wires, but the results are the same from every angle. This section is crammed with over a hundred unmarked graves averaging three feet by six, barely enough room for a body to lay flat. What’s more, they edge vertiginously close to the slope near the road, sometimes ending only a few inches from the drop-off. While it’s nice to know the body beneath the spire isn’t alone, it’s also unnerving to imagine that the next time the highway department comes through to repave and widen the road, they’ll perhaps clip the toe-bones of these resting unknowns. How close have the workers already skimmed over the years, oblivious to the scant inches between their hardhats and a long row of metatarsals?

Equally surprising is the mass of brambles and saplings that form the northern edge of the cemetery. Where we once thought the graves ended, giving over to dense brush, we find burials extending past the mowed borders of the property, sloping gently off into the thickening scrub. We map as deep into the tangled mess as our mosquito repellent allows, but we keep finding them. We never learn how far into the woods these graves stray, or how long they’ve been there.

Theories develop, of course. What else is there for father and son to do as the long July days stretch on? We first suspect that they are the graves of poor blacks, originally sectioned off from the whites in the cemetery. Nearby communities once had considerable black populations, though questionable county laws and dwindling employment opportunities whitened the county long ago. Our next idea is that they are Indian graves, though we have no good reason for this hypothesis besides the fact that Indians once lived in Indiana. Our best guess is that they are pauper graves that received either no headstones or ones made of wood. Most existing markers nearby are from the mid-nineteenth century, and with the humidity of Ohio Valley summers, we doubt that even a slab of hardwood could last over a hundred years. Regardless of cause, the fact remains that there is vast swath of bodies crammed toe-to-shoulder under this open ground, and we’re probably the first people of the new century to realize it.

One breezy day, we begin mapping the section of the cemetery containing my grandpa’s grave. It’s an easy stretch of work, because other than the oak at his feet, we find everything around his stone empty. Apparently, one of the benefits of being a cemetery trustee is picking a nice, roomy spot to be buried. As I’m recording the empty space, though, my dad tells me to go ahead and put his name and my uncle’s on either side of the plot. This addles me at first, but makes sense, because even though they’re both only in their mid-fifties, they’ve decided to stake their claim before anyone else asks for these spaces. They want to be buried with their mom and dad. When I ask who goes on what side, my dad explains that my grandma already took care of that. At the base of the stone, below and between my grandparents’ names, there’s a small postscript that reads “Our Sons, Alan and Steve.” My uncle, Alan, will be buried on the left, and my dad, Steve, will be buried on the right.

At the table that evening, as I’m inking the day’s pencil scratches to a steadier-handed sheet of graph paper, I note for the first time just how much open space there is around my grandpa’s grave. Even with my grandma’s space and room for my dad, stepmom, uncle and aunt, there are still loads of plots in every direction.

“Why is that?” I ask, fishing for a minor insight into the mind of my father’s father.

“Not sure,” my dad says. “I think he liked that white oak.” He pauses here, taking a slow draw from a glass of sweet tea. “Or maybe he just wanted to leave room for everybody else.” He leans over and looks at my lines drawn in the jittery hand I share with him. “Pick out a spot if you want.”

In my thirty-odd years, it’s never occurred to me to choose where I’d be buried. I have relatives in several local cemeteries. My great-grandma’s in Winslow, three miles north. My great-aunt and great-uncle are in Spurgeon, eight miles south. But they’ve each been crammed into surrounded plots, completing the jigsaw image and reuniting with their kin. In choosing this location, though, my grandpa has exercised forethought, sacrificing certain reunion for a subjunctive offer of homecoming to those he left behind.

That night, I lay awake in my dad’s guest room long after I crawl beneath the light summer sheets. I only need to write my name on a piece of old graph paper to choose (claim? reserve?) the location of my final rest—the last place I’ll be taken in this life, and the place our regional theology tells us the next one starts. I imagine us all springing up as the trumpet sounds and looking at each other, scratching our heads. It’s a comforting thought, but such cartographical certainty seems like it should be off limits until I know more about the world, life, women, when to call for a squeeze play in baseball… something.

Of course, the idea of family burial isn’t new in any culture, but it’s been happening in the Midwest for a long time—centuries before Europeans poked their noses in. Excavations and guesswork tell us that as far back as 200 A.D. the Hopewell (and later the Mississippians) were building great fortress settlements in the area and erecting burial mounds. When the oldest members of prominent families began to pass away, elaborate earthworks were raised, looking from the outside like unnaturally square hills. These families were buried at first in complicated ways with intricate trinkets and pottery. Later, as the slow centuries passed before white encroachment, these burial items became simpler, and eventually pedestrian. Southern Indiana reduces all its inhabitants to utilitarians if they stick around long enough.

Regardless of style, though, families have sought a final reunion here since prehistory. Even Ashby Cemetery bears this out. In the oldest part of the cemetery, there’s a group of stones bounded by a rusty wrought iron fence. The narrow gate hangs askew and tree roots have tunneled under, forcing some markers to tip forward at perilous angles. While the unmarked graves stretch unseen to their immediate south, these protected monuments attest to the value their owners placed on the family unit as an organizing principle, even in death. And who’s to say that the unknown burials nearby aren’t marshaled along the same lines? Who’s left to tell us whether the countless bodies under this browning, short-cropped summer grass are arranged by blood?

Sometime after midnight, I creep up the dimly lit basement stairs of my dad’s house and unfold the unfinished map lying on the kitchen table. On the right side, I find my grandpa’s plot and the ones reserved around him for his wife and sons. The sound of trilling cicadas creeps in beneath doors and between windowpanes. The only light comes from a small lamp in the next room and a nearly-full moon hanging low over nearby trees. Without my glasses, I lift the brittle paper close to my face, studying the unclaimed spaces until they grow blurry.