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My Very Own Zombie Apocalypse

Posted on the 17 January 2014 by Aussalorens

Last summer I found myself in a redneck bar in a tiny town a couple hours outside the city.  I’d never experienced anything remotely honky tonk so I found the entire concept alluring.  When I walked in, everyone turned to stare at me because I was clearly an outsider amongst these people who spent every night on the same old barstool, watching the same old TV.

I sat down and ordered a drink. The man next to me finally asked the question on everyone’s mind.

“What brings you ‘round here?”

I took a sip of my beer and opted for the truth.

“I’m trying to figure out where a man is buried.”

Several heads turned in my direction.

“You mean like a dead man?”

I nodded.

“It’s for work.”

“Where in the hell do you work?”

“A psychiatric hospital.”

People began looking at each other in mild confusion.

“You mean like an insane asylum?  You a doctor?”

“Oh, God no.”

“What’d you go to school for then?”

“African-American Studies.”

“You mean like Black folk?”

“Yep.”

A woman with a slick ponytail and a leather vest muttered into her glass of beer.

“Well I’ll be damned.”

It may have seemed like a smattering of unrelated and ridiculous information, but it was all bound together in a lofty pursuit—one that was a matter of dignity.

When I’d first interviewed for my job, I’d been told to feel privileged for making it to the third round because everyone else had masters’ degrees or were licensed social workers.  That did not make me feel privileged.

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The final interview was with the Executive Director and seemed like more of an experiment in surviving the awkward pauses he is so skilled at creating.  When he finally spoke, it was not to question me on my management savvy or Excel skills, but to lament the fact that he had a committee of people who were unable to solve the mystery of an old cemetery that had been discovered on the hospital grounds.  Over 600 people were buried there in the late 1800s and early 1900s but 100 of the graves were missing or illegible and no one could determine who was buried where.

Thanks a lot, erosion.

Thanks a lot, erosion.

My experience on this subject was limited to the childhood burials of a couple dozen rodents, reptiles, cats, and dogs.  Still, I’d worked on the psych ward for a year and it bothered me that the people in our care had been denied their right to a respectful burial place.  It was a matter of dignity and I told him so.

A week later he called and offered me the job.  He’d later confess that it was the comment on dignity that had made me qualified.

I had no idea what an executive project manager/historical archivist/PR person was supposed to do, so I quickly absorbed the cemetery project as my own.  I walked every inch of it, drawing diagrams and making lists.  I’d sit at the coffee house for hours, cursing aloud and trying to determine any sort of pattern that would aid in identifying the 100 unknown graves.

It didn’t make any chronological sense—horizontally or vertically.  The graves seemed to have been laid nonsensically:

1896 was next to 1884 next to 1889 then another 1896 and a random 1892

There was no way to predict which of the 100 unassigned names fit into the 100 unknown graves.

Until I realized that my random ass bachelor’s degree wasn’t for naught.

I scanned through the microfilmed charts of the patients and pulled out their race and religion.  Plugging this into the data, a pattern emerged.  Those bastards had gone to great lengths to maintain a very segregated cemetery, keeping black, white, and Jewish people far from each other.  The missing 100 people fell into place like a jigsaw puzzle.

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I printed my map and walked the cemetery, standing over each grave and reading the name aloud to ensure it matched what I had on my list.  When I’d made it to the last name on the last row I was almost afraid to say it aloud, lest the earth begin to shake and the graves open and the people come crawling out of the ground like my very own zombie apocalypse.

When it all matched up, I got to work on ordering 600 brand new granite headstones.  There was only one problem remaining—several people were documented as being exhumed and their headstones had been removed accordingly.  Except for this one guy—Micah Rosenthal.  The records showed he’d been exhumed but he still had a gravemarker.

I've pretty much memorized these

Charming invoices from the gravediggers

Was he, or wasn’t he?  I couldn’t run the risk of not marking his final resting place if he were still there but I also couldn’t handle the error of marking an empty grave.  It was a mystery and I don’t believe in leaving those unsolved.

Though I eventually found where he’d been reburied, it wasn’t until after I’d stalked his entire line of descendants, tromped through numerous small town cemeteries, poured over the records in four City Halls and terrified the regulars at a honky tonk bar in the boondocks.

A few of my colleagues remained skeptical—they said I couldn’t really know where the people were buried, that it was an educated guess at best.

I don’t believe in educated guesses.  I believe in solving mysteries and my burial pattern could not be denied.

My moment of vindication came when we began laying the new headstones and began to hit the missing headstones with our shovels.  They’d sunk deep into the ground and when they were uncovered, I had the smug satisfaction of seeing the name of the person I’d sworn was buried there.

Sooo SUCK ON THAT!

Sooo SUCK ON THAT!

After this, I earned street cred as a bona fide expert on finding dead people.  I was like the Haley Joel Osment of the mental health field.

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While this might seem like the kind of project you only encounter once, I have now set my sights on locating a mass grave that is also rumored to be on our property.  According to newspaper reports from the late 1800s, thirty-nine psychiatric patients died of tuberculosis in the span of 10 days and were buried in a single unmarked grave without a funeral service or so much as a record to document their location.

WTF, history?

I’ve read the charts of each of these 39 people.  I’ve seen letters written by their family, gone over the psych evaluations, and studied the telegrams that were sent to notify their next of kin when they died.  They were mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, husbands and wives and for one reason or another they’d ended up in our care and never left.  It horrifies me to think that they are now forgotten, that their names aren’t written anywhere but in a notebook that sits on the corner of my desk, next to my voodoo doll.

Next week, the fruits of my harassment will come to pass and a team of archeologists will visit the hospital to discuss plans for using ground penetrating radar to find the mass grave.  People keep telling me it’s a long shot, but I’ve been spending a fair amount of time at that same coffee shop, pouring over old maps, cursing in frustration, and developing theories.  Sure, it’s a mystery but I don’t believe in leaving those unsolved.  I might not be able to make up for the darkness of the past, but I will find them and I will honor their lives, and they will be remembered.  It’s a matter of dignity.

Have you ever ended up with a random job or project that you never planned on?  Has your college education actually come in handy?  What mysteries have you solved? 


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