SAN DIEGO, Jan. 21, 2009 – A story by J.R. Lind about vandalism in a Cedar Forest cemetery ran last week in The Democrat. The vandal’s motive for digging into a grave was unclear.
I thought of the Mel Brook’s movie, “Young Frankenstein,” as Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman dug in the graveyard for the body to become “Frankenstein.” I e-mailed J.R., “They were looking for a brain.”
The story also brought memories.
In 1958, I started summer work with the City of Lebanon. After several early assignments, I worked at the water works on Hunter’s Point Pike with Truman Garrett and Elmer Elkins.
I hoped to drive a bush hog tractor but was told I was too small. My big friends, Henry Harding, Charles “Fox” Dedman, and others were assigned the bush hogs. With a twist of logic I did not grasp and after shoveling sand in the filter system at the waterworks, I went to the Cedar Grove Cemetery.
In that era, digging graves was accomplished by hand. When not digging graves, mowing and trimming the 35 acres was the bulk of our work. The two permanent workers, “Mister Bill” and “Dub” (I apologize for not knowing their last names. I’m not sure I ever did) took me under wing. They were pleasant, interesting, and fun.
Mr. Mitchell “Bush” Babb, the manager, lived adjacent to the cemetery. He reputedly was the only one who knew the grave locations after a fire destroyed some cemetery records. I was impressed Mr. Babb had played against Ty Cobb in the Tennessee-Alabama League before the Georgia Peach went on to fame in the majors.
Once I got over my queasiness, I found the cemetery interesting. I studied grave markers, especially the older ones.
The Mitchell-Smith monument was impressive. My father had told me about the huge granite slab’s (roughly four by six by eight feet) trip to its final resting spot. He was “seven or eight” when the monument arrived at the train depot where Shenandoah Mills now stands. He snuck away to watch part of the two-week process. After offloading from the flatbed, the monument was set on four wooden logs, roughly a foot square. The logs were slicked with “octagon” soap. The four horses or mules pulled the monument forward while the workers rotated the logs from back to front.
There were many other interesting stories I gathered from the markers.
Sonny Smithson, a seminary student at David Lipscomb joined me the next summer. His father was the preacher at the College Street Church of Christ when it was actually located on the corner of College Street and Gay Street. Ironically, the original city cemetery was located there and until the interred were relocated to Cedar Grove when it opened in 1846.
In 1962, our last summer, Sonny and I became efficient in cemetery work and learned about graves “sinking.” Some sunk immediately after the burial due to the dirt compacting. Others sunk later when the natural decay set in, especially in the older graves, some suddenly when an air pocket collapsed. We tread over the grounds without temerity.
One June day, Mr. Bill sent us to clear out an area in the northwest corner. As normal, we had gathered for the day’s work at the small stone building in the opposite corner..
With “lively lads” on our shoulders, we trekked across the cemetery on the shortest route: pretty much a straight line, walking over graves with no concern. I was in the lead. Just after I walked over a grave (we later determined the grave was created in 1923), I turned to say something to Sonny. As he stepped on the middle of the grave, one of those air pockets took the opportune moment to collapse. Sonny went down into the depression about two feet and turned ashen through a Tennessee summer tan. He cleared what seemed to be about six feet straight up. Before he hit the ground, we realized what had happened. But for a split second, graveyard ghost stories came rushing back to both of us.
Sonny left work early that summer to go back to the seminary. I am sure it had nothing to do with the sinking grave incident. I worked through the rest of the summer.
Now when I have to submit a resume or biographical summary, I include “gravedigger” as part of my experience. It has proven to separate me from the pack, and I always know when someone has read my input in its entirety.