In 2003, I worked on a cemetery removal project in my hometown, Rome, NY, for park improvements funded partly by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. This story is based on actual historical and archaeological data from that project.
By the early fall of 1889, when the young laborer got there with a host of other out-of-work men, the cemetery was a mess. Recently exhumed graves smoldered with the charred remains of shattered coffins and discarded headstones, fueled by tree limbs and bramble. Wagons left steaming piles of coal ash on one side of the cemetery to fill in the low spots where the ground was always a little bit soft, even in the heat of summer. And at night, when all the workers went to their boarding houses, contractors cashing in on the recent housing boom carted off dozens of marble headstones to use in new foundations, leaving behind dozens of unmarked graves. Which just made the city’s job all that much harder.
Remembered yesterday, lost tomorrow.
It had been over a decade since the last legal burial in the city’s cemetery, but neighbors often complained that midnight interments still occurred. And it had been nearly a decade of pressure before the common council finally relented to neighbors’ demands and acted to terminate the cemetery. As more houses went up along George Street, those voices got louder. The city answered the call and hoped to transform this miasmic eyesore into a park landscape that Olmstead would at least not sneer at.
For six weeks, the laborer worked in a team, clearing brush, exhuming graves. They had all answered an ad in their local newspapers in Gloversville, West Winfield, Florence, Pulaski. They came to dig through the coarse sand and coarser cobbles to pick whatever they could recognize out of the shattered coffins, but they always left some behind, little strips of ribs, fingers and toes, the little spiky points on backbones. Some people were buried just a decade ago, but most were ground to dust by the weight of glacial till. Whatever was left went into a small pine box, one of hundreds made at the county poor farm and trundled to the cemetery on wagons. From there, they went to the new, rural cemetery, a little further out of town and more park than burial ground, where they would go all together into a big hole in the ground at the back of the city’s new attraction. Another crew—men just a little more refined, more teeth and less scotch in their heads—were part of a reserve unit, accompanying families to gravesides and performing custom exhumations. Those remains went into new caskets, slid into the back of an enclosed carriage, destined for some private plot in the country.
A city clerk stood in the afternoon shade of some new houses that had grown up around the cemetery. He had just one job here in the burying ground. Some families chose to leave their dead in the old burying ground, perhaps because of the cost of removal and reburial, perhaps because of some nostalgic grip on conservative values, an anchor to the land for what had become a very mobile population. The clerk walked through with a list of those names scribbled on a map, stopped to cross-check the map with a headstone, and then bent over awkwardly, and wrote “down” with a grease pencil on the back of the monument in a looping cursive script easy to read at a few paces. These stones would be left in place, knocked over on top of the grave, and buried beneath the new park.
The laborer had been working in a family plot since lunch, where each of the stones was marked “down.” He dug out a few inches in front of the headstone, and then levered the headstone over into the pit, face up, with his shovel. The headstones cracked as they hit the rocky soil with a wet knocking sound, like the sound a pig’s hip makes when you pop it out of joint. He dug out the cobbles used to chink the monument base in place and tossed them into an open, burning grave shaft, sending a spirit of embers up into the dry autumn leaves.
He was distracted. Maybe he had a sick kid at home. Maybe he was wondering—again—if he would ever get paid for this unsettling work. Maybe he was just watching the local women who came by feigning disgust, but peering over the edges of the graves just the same to watch the men work, to see what a real skeleton looked like. Whatever it was, after toppling six headstones in a row, he woke up when a spit of dirt and gravel flew in his face, catapulted off the end of coffin lid as his shovel sent wood, nails, and rocks flying into the air.
The girl was just three. Ann. Little Ann with a lamb on top. The headstone he was working on came just up to his knees. Maybe he thought of his sick kid as he peered into the coffin’s rent lid, slowly opening more and more as the dirt filtered in, made worse by his nervously shifting feet. Thoughts occurred to him all at once…she would have been my age by now…who the hell buried her so shallow? …is this what that looks like? …What do I do?
That last question got him up, looking around, rapidly assessing his options. He could just forget it, cover it up. He looked up again at the headstone, then at the wagon nearby, stacked ten deep with stout wooden boxes, about 18 inches long and a foot wide and deep, made of thick, rough-cut pine. Bags of nails and a couple of hammers hung from the wagon’s sideboards.
He slowly pulled his shovel out of the lid, and caught a glimpse of a cracked bone: wet, crumbly, like the center of the stale piece of bread he floated in his thin soup the night before. He grabbed a box, tucked it under his arm, snagged a bag of nails and a hammer and fell to his knees at the foot of the grave. Pausing just a second, he put aside his shovel and stuck a hand inside the coffin.
He could feel the dry space where the lid met the coffin wall, lifted enough to hear the nail heads pop through the rotten wood, and carefully moved the lid, with an inch of soil on top, to the side. The coffin had that traditional shape, with just a hint of ornamentation left; a row of brass tacks lined the interior top edge of the coffin, the only evidence left of the casket’s silk lining. Each of the little bones went into the smaller box, nervously but in as much anatomical order as he could manage. The skull was broken, though not by his errant shovel. He nailed on the lid, and then accidentally dropped the box, which sent the carefully arranged bones into a pile at one end of the box. After a muttered curse and a quick look around, he placed the box back into the old coffin.
He didn’t let this headstone fall. He lifted it himself and it was heavy and wet, and sharp on the edges. He lifted it and he placed it gently on top of the tiny box.
Ann. Little Ann with a stone on top.
Maybe he thought about his sick kid, maybe he shook off spiraling thoughts about what he would look like, in a coffin, or in a box, stones on top of bones. He thought he might go home today, find a job on the canal on the way, especially if no one showed up again today with an envelope full of cash.
Rome’s old burying ground likely began as a family plot and sheep pasture at the end of the 18th century, but the city eventually outgrew its usefulness, as well as the neighbors’ tolerance for such an eyesore. In the fall of 1889, the city hired laborers to remove what they could, while at night contractors building homes in that part of the city during a construction boom robbed the graveyard of headstones. Many of Rome’s house foundations from this period are made from the cobbles dug out of the house footprint. Masons used the marble slabs to level the cobble foundations at intervals and used larger plot markers and monuments for quoining. We found one of these house, vacant and decaying, just a few days before the city’s codes department tore it down.
Along with the individual stories that human remains tell us, the cemetery held unexpected surprises in the evidence of the transformation from cemetery to park. Public city parks in the Northeast were often converted cemeteries, and moving the dead was much more common than we realize. Although, they never got them all, for various reasons. The archaeological signature of exhumation included scorched grave shafts, filled with powderized marble, fire-cracked cobbles, and charcoal; grease pencil on the back of headstones, all in a single hand; and little side trenches excavated next to the burial shaft to remove a coffin from the ground whole. Later, when the city installed sewer lines or reconstructed park paths, they came across buried headstones and shifted them over or buried them deeper.
The cemetery became a park worthy of a postcard, finally dedicated the next year, and named after the city’s famed Revolutionary War fort, Stanwix.