Cemetery Crawling: Saving old burial grounds

Kathryn Ross

“Did you ever think when the hearse goes by, that you may be the next to die. They’ll wrap you up in silk and rags and throw six feet of dirt in your face,” goes the old children’s song.

With imaginations fed by B-movie scenes of skeletal hands reaching out of graves and grabbing ankles, most people are a little hesitant when walking through a cemetery. But most people aren’t Charlie Barrett lately of Wellsville, but originally from Little Genesee who spends much of his free time at local cemeteries.

Barrett refers to himself as a “cemetery crawler” - a person who reads cemeteries and maps out grave sites, so cemetery associations know where people are buried.

Many cemeteries have good maps, but some are so old that original landmarks are gone, or roads have been widened, or new roads have been put in place, or old carriage roads are completely lost, fouling up the coordinates used to lay out grave sites.

It’s important to know where the graves are even the unmarked ones according to Barrett, “No one wants the outrigger of a back hoe going through great-great-great Aunt Sally’s chest,” he pointed out. But more practically no cemetery association wants to deal with lawsuits which could cost thousands of dollars because a grave was not in the place it was supposed be according to some out-of-date map.

High tech equipment can be used to locate grave sites, but Barrett who can’t afford the overly expensive radar uses tricks of the trade learned from years of “crawling” through cemeteries.

First off, he said, in a cemetery you can usually tell where a grave is. With a tombstone note, that it is a headstone and most often the grave is in back of the part which is carved. In old graves the ground will be a bit sunken due to the deterioration of old wooden caskets. But even in newer grave constructed with water tight vaults there are still tell-tale signs.

“When they dig a grave, they’re digging into soil which has been compacted for centuries, at best it might have been plowed, but for the most part it’s hard and compact. When it’s dug up and turned over the air gets to it. It has more nutrients and moisture, so that when it is placed back in the grave, you can see a difference in the grass that grows over it, from the grass surrounding it,” he explained.

“In the old days before there were automatic and riding lawnmowers they placed fences around plots because it was sacrilegious to walk on someone’s grave,” he said, “some times you can still see the bases where the uprights stood.

“Also in most cemeteries the sites were laid out with walkways, you just have to look to see them.

But occasionally a grave gets out of place, either someone is trying to crowd five graves into a four-grave plot or they thought, according to the maps, they were digging in the right place.”

Barrett uses a simple method to locate graves - a 300 feet long rule, a laser rule, a drop-line, and a couple of pieces of iron pipe and a small sledge for pounding on the ground to hear whether its solid or hollow (just like finding a stud). He then locates a family grave plot which may or may not be fenced in, but is mapped on an old map. He starts measuring from that point. Then he graphs the sites with the help of a laptop computer and a special program.

The self proclaimed cemetery crawler has been paid thousands for his accurate mapping, but it is also his hobby.

He has worked in cemeteries from Mt. Hope in Rochester to well into old cemeteries in Pennsylvania. Currently he is looking into the history and mapping the Johnson Cemetery in Wellsville.

Over the years he’s seen some pretty curious objects in cemeteries.

There’s a type of marker which was made by the Bridgeport Bronze Metal Works in Connecticut which today has weathered in such away as to look like granite.

“They look just like stone, but usually the carving is much clearer. You don’t know its metal until you touch it.

There are weathered metal grave markers which also look like sheaf’s of corn. Metal markers were expensive by the standards of the day , but they can be found in Ceres Community Cemetery and in a cemetery in Java.

In the Maple Grove Cemetery in Friendship there is a a flywheel from an old steam engine marking Loren Weir’s grave.

There’s a playhouse in the Cuba Cemetery built by J.R. McKee for his wife. She was distraught over her 21-year old daughter’s death in 1875. According to Barrett, the mother sat by the grave day in and day out grieving. To protect her from the elements the brick house was constructed. Inside there are chairs and portraits.

“Today it costs around $250 to open a grave, If a 4 foot, wide, six foot deep and eight foot long grave is hand dug, it would take about four hours. That’s pretty good wages,” Barrett said, “But today they just hurry, hurry and bring in a back hoe and dig. Some times they collapse a nearby grave, because a back hoe is on wheels and it doesn’t distribute the weight evenly. They do have excavators that are on tracks which are better because they distribute the weight more evenly.

“In old cemeteries I’d like to see all the graves dug by hand.”