Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What's Buried in that Graveyard?

I mean, besides the obvious stuff. I was rather shocked to find out from a cemetery grounds keeper friend of mine some of the things that he and his workers find on the grounds. Now, I’m not talking about some abandoned graveyard out in the woods, but rather a nice well-kept, city cemetery. The cemetery in question is large enough that visitors can easily drive a little way and be out of sight of the people in the office.

When you or I walk through the occasional cemetery, we’re not inclined to notice something that was not there yesterday – a small mound of dirt, an item sticking out of the ground. But people whose job it is to care for the monuments, the stones, and the grounds DO notice such things. And they’ll typically remove them.

Voodoo doll, Atlantic City Cemetery
The typical voodoo dolls are found, to be sure, along with the dead chickens. I’ve seen these too, but there are creepier things. One time my friend saw something sticking up a bit out of the ground near a grave. Upon investigation, he pulled out a three by ten-inch parcel wrapped in a scarf. He was curious, so he unwrapped it. Inside were two face-to-face Barbie-type dolls, naked, with coins and pieces of broken mirror between them.  One had a pin stuck in her.   

Another time, he found a plastic shopping bag full of dead headless chickens – in full feather − with a note tied on saying “Neptune.” He assumed this was done by one of these whackos whose job it is to warn us about space aliens – until he read in the newspaper the following week about Yvon Neptune, Haiti’s imprisoned Prime Minister. Probably had to do with that governments’ (2004) crackdown on voodoo priestesses (I’m not making this up!).

Snake Handle, compliments of Angela Dellutri Photography
Then of course there was the jar of dead snakes he found, swishing around in some liquid, the large jar just sitting on a headstone. All of this stuff, obviously related to voodoo spells, curses and conjures. According to, "Snakes are a common subject in the realm of hoodoo and folk magic. Their uses range the gamut from good luck to retribution, and the omens assigned to them as equally as varied." Now keep in mind, this was not in New Orleans, it was in Philadelphia. Whatever the locale, a graveyard is a popular place for voodoo practitioners to enlist the aid of spirits (of the dead) to help with spells. (Check out this video posted by one intrepid cemetery explorer, and see what he found in a cemetery in New York City!)

Even more disturbing than finding snakes in a jar must  have been when the cemetery groundskeeper at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California found the human hearts in a jar in 2010. (You can read about that in more detail in one of my previous blogs, "Human Hearts Found in Jars in Cemetery.")
"Police opened up one jar and found a human heart with the photo of a young man and woman pinned to it. Nearby was a second jar with the same contents, but bearing a photo of a different young man and woman. Officers also found partially burned cigars and candles…"
-The Oakland Tribune, 10/22/2010
Though I’ve never personally found snakes or hearts in jars, I started thinking about the weird stuff I have come across in fifteen years of cemetery travel, and wondered what other people had found. So I began a Facebook Group called “Unusual Cemetery Objects,” and encouraged people to post their findings. I was kind of hoping to tap into the experience of the cemetery groundskeeper, but so far, they are a shy bunch. I assume this is partly because cemetery managers would rather not make it known to the general public that jars of snakes had been found buried on the grounds. Still I encourage those people to add such findings to the comments at the end of this blog – if you’d rather maintain anonymity, email me and I will add your comments.

So this blog’s title phrase “buried in a graveyard” can also refer to found objects only figuratively buried, i.e. hidden from the public eye. When I asked people about the “Unusual Cemetery Objects,” they’d found, I did get some unexpected responses. While people certainly photograph odd-looking monuments and casket vaults, they typically don’t photograph the surprising things they come upon, like homeless people or nude model shoots (both of which are fairly common).

Here is a list of a few things people posted on my Facebook Group page, “Unusual Cemetery Objects:”
  •          stack of blankets and a comforter in a bricked in plot (homeless people apparently camped there)
  •          bullet holes in ceramic death portraits
  •          helium balloons tied to headstones in Scotland
  •         a dead body … came across police investigating the body of a dead prostitute
  •          a music video shoot with model and fog machine  [popular with the Goth set – ed.]
  •         a casket key         skeleton gloves in a trash can
  •         a headstone where a local serial killer scratched his name on the back
  •         grass that won’t grow on a plot
  •          the top of a skull in a pit in Pere Lachaise
  •         goat’s head
  •          Someone ELSE putting flowers on YOUR loved one’s grave!
That last one might just be the most unnerving! Which goes to show that there’s a world of life in cemeteries that we don’t normally see.

Headstones appear inside fallen tree!
When I read one person’s comment about the skull at Pere Lachaise, I was reminded of the human teeth I found in the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans. I scooped up a handful of the gravelly walkway material because I thought it looked like broken up seashells, which it was, mostly, but there were also a half dozen teeth in my hand! (Once you learn about the above-ground burial techniques common in the area, you realize this is not unusual. But still ….)

Stuffed lynx (or perhaps an ocelot?) with garden furniture inside mausoleum!
Dead fox, Mt. Moriah Cemetery, Phila.
I’ve seen animals in cemeteries, live and dead. And bones. Bones are a strange thing to find in a graveyard, which is kind of funny and ironic when you think about it. I once found a pile of animal bones in the shape of the skeletons of the animals, probably wild dogs. They laid there along with three skulls of roughly the same size. They either fought each other to the death or this was the ancient wild pit bull burial ground.

Who knows what evil lurks?
One of the oddest things I ever saw in a graveyard was a freshly-dug, two-foot-square cement-filled hole, with a dog's footprints in the cement! This was among other graves in an abandoned cemetery. Kind of reminded me of an old, hand-painted plywood sign that used to be on the fence at Evergreen Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey, which said, "No unauthorized burials permitted."

But really, what’s the worst possible thing you can find in a graveyard? Yeah, the hearts in a jar was pretty gruesome, but compared to the horrible things living people do to each other, it’s nothing.


Thanks to Angela Dellutri for the use of her Snake Door Handle photograph.