The ashes I wasn’t meant to find

When I stumbled upon a mysterious box in a cemetery, I didn't know what to do -- but I had to do something

Topics: Halloween, Life stories,

I have a long-standing fantasy that I’m going to find the $7 million that once belonged to gangster Dutch Schultz, who secreted the cash in the upstate New York hills where I live. The money has been missing for decades, so when I first saw that box, sitting there in the graveyard where I occasionally walk my dogs, I actually said out loud: “Oh my God, it’s buried treasure.”

The box wasn’t nearly large enough to contain so much money — it looked as if it might be a 4-by-6-inch index card box — but then again, how many times do you stumble across a box sitting in an open hole?

I crouched down, the late afternoon Friday sun hot on my neck. The box was not stone, as I had originally thought, but a heavy-duty black ridged cardboard. Hmm, I thought, perhaps someone’s family heirlooms?

On a grave not too far from where we stood, someone had left several pieces of costume jewelry atop one of the headstones. I lifted the heavy box out of its shallow hole. On one end, someone had typed a white label.

A man’s name. A place of residence. And the note: “Human remains. Cremated August 1, 2011.”

My hands began to shake. “Oh. Oh my. I’ve found human cremains,” I said out loud to the dogs.

- – - – - – - – - – -

When I was a kid, my cousins and I would hold our breaths in the car. We lived in the Midwest, so it wasn’t some attempt to block out the miasma of a freshly manured field or the local pig farm that drove such behavior. We were used to those smells. But, just as we knew that stepping on a crack would surely break your mother’s back, even if we didn’t understand the mechanism by which that would happen, we understood that if you were in a car that was driving by a cemetery, you had to hold your breath.

Maybe that’s when my fascination with graveyards began. Living where I do now, and drawn to the history that can be gleaned from the gravestones here in central New York, I have walked cemeteries that were designed by Frederick Olmstead — the architect of Central and Prospect Parks — and tiny pioneer graveyards that have all but disappeared underneath the dead leaves and myrtle that cover the forest floors. In a Catholic cemetery next to one of the glens lies entombed the remains of a victim of the HMS Titanic. In many of the graveyards I have found stories of families’ heartbreaks: multiple children buried, too many young women who died in childbirth, too many sons lost in 200 years of war.



At the graveyard that is closest to my house, the border between the living and the dead is frozen. In the winter, the long, sloping hill that bounds the east serves as a training ground for young snow sledders. After school, before the sun sets by 4:30, or Saturdays and Sundays, troops of young children and their parents jump on their toboggans starting at the outer graves and slide down toward the snow bowl at the bottom. I have always thought, in a fanciful way, that the people underground are divided between those who enjoy watching the show, and others, who want to yell at the kids to “get off my lawn.”

A few weeks before I found the cremains, I had taken the two dogs up to the field adjacent to the graveyard so that they could run off-leash in the grass and into the woods. At the borders of fields, cemetery and woods, about halfway between two rows of graves and among the roots of a giant red oak, they found a freshly dug woodchuck tunnel. Excited by evidence that the woodchuck was nearby, the girls began to dig. They took turns, and at times, I watched as a head disappeared down the growing hole. I held my breath, imagining the unearthly scream of a dog with a woodchuck attached to its nose. I pulled them away.

Three weeks later, Hurricane Irene blew through, and trees throughout the area were uprooted. As if pulled by Irene’s drag, Hurricane Lee came through with even heavier rains. When I took the dogs back up to the cemetery in search of dry ground for us to walk, we returned to the field. The dogs ran over to inspect the woodchuck hole. The hole had been washed out. It was now a pan-shaped depression, maybe a foot deep. Sitting in the center of it was a marbled black box.

Having discovered that it was ashes, instinct told me to drop the box like a hot kettle, but I overruled that in order to place the box back in its original position. But now what? I felt I could not leave it there: Animals would scatter what was in the box, and that bothered me. Surely someone would know what I should do.

It was after 5, a Friday evening. I used my cellphone to call a friend who sits on the town board. No answer.

I tried another board member. Again, no answer, and I realized, as I was listening to myself explaining my conundrum to the voice mail, that I was leaving crazy messages about being in the local cemetery and did they know what I should do with the box of cremains I had found?

But why? I didn’t know this person.

I had noticed that the name on the box matched the stone closest to the hole. A birth year — 1922 — the hyphen ending in a blank space. I saw in my mind the old man’s widow, garden trowel in hand digging a hole. She had wanted him to be close to his family, but something had prevented her from having her husband properly interred. How sad, I thought. And it was her poor luck that a woodchuck had tunneled right through the ersatz plot.

I thought of my own 95-year-old grandmother. If someone in the future were to find her ashes somewhere they shouldn’t be, wouldn’t I want someone to intervene on her behalf?

The town library was still open. I asked the clerk who she thought I should call. “Wait, you found a body?” she asked.

“No. Cremains. You know. Ashes. In a box.”

“Well, can you take them home with you?”

“Um. No. I don’t think so. Besides, I think it’s illegal, isn’t it? But I can’t just leave them here.” I thanked her for her time.

I slapped at a lazy deer fly, looked toward the valley to see if I could see anyone out walking. No one.

But afterward the words echoed: I could take them home. I imagined reaching back into the scooped-out earth, picking up the box, and placing it on the passenger seat. I’m a klutz. Chances are, ashes would blow all over the inside of my car. Besides, the idea of bringing home a stranger’s cremains creeped me out. Aren’t half of all horror stories about disturbing the remains of the dead? He needed to be properly attended to. And I knew that the fact that I had just referred to the ashes as “he” meant that some time in the past 15 minutes, I had committed myself to seeing this through.

Next idea. I called the county sheriff’s office. “So, you’re saying that you didn’t find a body, you found ashes, and you’re in a cemetery.” The male voice on the other end of the line sighed. “Ma’am. It’s a really busy night down here, and all the cars are out, but if you leave me your number, I’ll have my sergeant give you a call. Maybe in an hour or so.”

I walked around the perimeter of the cemetery until I found a black iron sign. It listed two phone numbers. Again, I left a long, detailed message about what I had discovered on voice mails.

By this time, my partner, Rob, had arrived home from work and had driven up to join me.

“You really thought this was buried treasure?”

“I know. Pretty dumb, huh? Should we just leave it?”

Rob put his arms around me. “No. Too many scavengers around here. We’ve probably got an hour or so before sunset. Let’s keep working on this.”

When I was 8, my parents moved my brother and me to a small house whose backyard abutted a graveyard. After school, my new friends told me stories about the characters who hung out at the cemetery: the old man who came and sat by his dead wife’s grave every night; the lantern that hung by a hook on a pole over one of the graves, and how that light mysteriously turned itself on each night at dusk; the horse-and-buggy that drove through the cemetery at night, and that one of the boys sworn he had seen. “A ghost carriage,” he said. “It’s real. I’m not lying.”

I thought of those stories as I looked at the sun sinking lower in the rose-colored sky. As a kid, I had been frightened of the dead, but now, I only saw the good in the person — perhaps he had loved his wife so much he had sat vigil with her every night. Goose bumps flew up my skin.

My phone rang. It was the cemetery owner. “And what is the name on the box?” he asked.

I told him.

“I don’t have any record of such a person,” he said. “Someone must have left them there, because we bury cremains much deeper than just a foot.” He continued, “Wow. This is just like the other local cemeteries.” He was referring to the bizarre story I had seen a few weeks ago. Several cemetery owners had reported finding ashes — and bodies — buried without the knowledge of the graveyard owners. Improper burial of a body is not only illegal, it’s also considered theft. People were stealing space in a graveyard — the owners’ only source of revenue. The people who were interviewed said that improper burial was another symptom of a hard economy.

Times are lean here: Our local food pantry is feeding 15 percent of our people; the natural gas companies are trying to persuade folks to lease their land for fracking; turns out, people were also secreting their dead into shallow graves.

“Listen,” he said. “I can’t get there until tomorrow morning. I doubt anyone is going to steal the cremains tonight. It’ll be dark soon. Can you mark the hole in some way?”

“Do you want me to throw dirt on it and bury it for tonight?”

“No. I won’t be able to find it. What about a tree branch or something?”

“OK,” I said. And we hung up.

I explained to Rob what I had been told. “I don’t know, Lorraine. I’m concerned that scavengers will get to it.” He looked around. “Look, what about piling stones on top of it?”

For the next 20 minutes, we gathered the fist-and brick-size stones from the clearing by the woods, carrying them back to the hole and stacking them. Even after we had placed a half-dozen on top of the box, we continued.

I realized we were building a cairn, an ancient form of marker.

He’s here, I was thinking.

Evening sounds enveloped us as we worked: crickets, cicadas, chickadees, the keen of a hawk. In the distance, a herd of deer grazed; a murder of crows squawked in the trees; turkey vultures circled. The natural order dictated that, as the sun set, the graveyard would be ceded to the wild and the dead.

By building a cairn, I was participating in the chain of life. I had owed the old man this. It was the right thing to do. It was the human thing to do.

My old childhood ritual had been silly. This ritual — the burying of the dead — was as natural as drawing breath.

Lorraine Berry is an associate editor at Talking Writing. Follow her on Twitter: @BerryFLW

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>