A mid-nineteenth historian, whose name is long lost, once remarked that the best way to understand a community is to go to the local cemetery.
The true fabric of any society is written on the tombstones: long and short lives, triumph, tragedy, even missing chapters, it’s all there in one sprawling historical account.
The most famous illustration of this is the magnificent “Spoon River Anthology,” written by Edgar Lee Masters in 1915. The lives, loves, methods of death of over 200 occupants of a fictional cemetery are examined as each tells his/her own story.
The honest, chaste and law-abiding lie next to corrupt, failed scoundrels. Town drunkards are buried astride the celebrated, some of whose graves have been left unmarked or untended. The great equalizer that we all face, death, has woven an uneven tapestry contained in the graveyard.
And Masters ties all his stories together with repetition of a classic line of poetry: “all, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.”
The notion of resting in peace, free of life’s burdens offers comfort to the living — but as Masters indicates and any cemeterian knows, life continues to play out, even in a graveyard.
Take, for example, the missing chapters — it’s confounding to believe that some of those who have cast very long shadows lie in unknown whereabouts.
The list of so-called “lost graves,” that is unmarked graves or unknown locations, includes: Cleopatra, her lover Marc Antony, Davy Crockett, Leonardo da Vinci, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vlad the Impaler, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Thomas Paine, Roy Orbison, Frank Zappa, Genghis Khan, and child actor Bobby Driscoll.
Some of the stories are familiar. Alexander the Great was entombed, grave robbed and then moved to another, now forgotten spot. Crockett’s body was burned at the Alamo, final disposition not determined.
Two of this company — Mozart and da Vinci, both have markers, but the former is definitely not buried in that location and it is doubtful the latter is either.
Then there are special cases like John Belushi and John Wayne, whose graves have singular circumstances attached to them.
When Wayne died of lung cancer in 1979, his family did not want to have the grave in Pacific View Park (Orange, California) devolve into a circus-like tourist site that would disturb the serene atmosphere. Finally, in 1998, it was decided that enough time had passed, so a very tasteful marker was installed.
Belushi’s grave, located in Chilmark Cemetery, Martha’s Vineyard, Ma., experienced the ravages of vandalism that the Wayne family was concerned about – so Belushi’s body was moved to an unmarked plot in the same cemetery, while the original tombstone is still in place.
Aside from all of the mismarking and lost grave issues, another real life factor which impacts the dead today is the alarming increase in grave robbery.
The traditional body snatching method — as in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn watching Dr. Robinson, Muff Potter and company going after the recently buried Hoss Williams — still goes on in some societies, particularly in looting archeological treasures.
The modern grave robber is plundering nowhere near the cemetery, and the dollar value of these abhorrent crimes has been estimated to be in the billions.
It is identity theft: ID Analytics, a credit and fraud prevention company, reports that up to 2.5 million identities of the dead are stolen every year in America.
This practice — which is called “ghosting” — is aimed at exploiting the defenseless departed. Credit cards are established, phony tax returns that yield large refunds are filed, loan applications are made — there is literally no limit to what these thieves can do with a dead person’s identity.
Prevention of this crime is tricky because there is so much public information now available. Common sense safety tips at the time of death include: be careful to not to put too much data in the obituary, especially the mother’s maiden name; notifying all credit card companies and credit bureaus promptly; informing banks and financial advisors immediately — and, of course, talking the situation over with the funeral director who is handling the arrangements.
Cemeteries have a lot of stories to tell. Even though someone has passed on, real life events may still entangle them.