By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Visit enough cemeteries and you’ll see what time and neglect can do to a final resting place. Tree limbs fall and knock tombstones from their pedestals. Roads get expanded, and surrounding graveyards aren’t quite as big as they once were. Drunks test the strength of their four-wheelers, and kids find convenient targets for pent-up aggression.
“You know how they say, ‘Gone but not forgotten?’” said Bro. Jerry Owen, 70, of Ripley. “Everybody’s forgotten.”
“Sooner or later. Right,” added 72-year-old Lawrence “Catfish” Lowrey of Blue Mountain.
Owen and Lowrey have aligned themselves against the chaotic forces that harm cemeteries in Tippah and surrounding counties. They’re self-described “gravers.”
If they wanted to be fancy, they’d call themselves “taphophiles,” a Greek word for people who love funerals, graves and/or cemeteries.
The pair are a genealogist’s dream, and they have a mission.
“If you tell me there’s a cemetery over that hill, we’ll try to find it,” Lowrey said. “If we find it, we’ll record all the names and take pictures of the tombstones and get GPS coordinates.”
Owen said, “People contact me all the time and ask me to take pictures of their grandfather’s tombstone, so we do that. It’s something we can do.”
They post their findings to www.findagrave.com, a free resource with millions of listings. The website’s logo is a tombstone with a question mark, and it’s a fitting symbol for the volunteer work Owen and Lowrey do.
“Sometimes, you find them with lichen all over them like this one. If I can’t read them, I leave them alone,” Owen said during a recent excursion to a cemetery in Blue Mountain.
Glue, but no bleach
Nearby stones were bright white, showing evidence of deep-cleaning. Owen said that’s someone else’s job.
“We don’t clean tombstones with acid or bleach. Matter of fact, I don’t clean them with anything. They’re not ours,” Owen said. “If I want to go to my mama and daddy’s graves, I might clean them, but I wouldn’t use acid or bleach if I did. That stone is porous.”
“That’s a settled fact, huh?” Lowrey said.
“Absolutely,” Owen said.
They will repair tombstones with high-powered glue, but not everyone wants that service. They found a one-grave cemetery on someone’s property and asked permission to repair the stone.
“The owner said, ‘I’d really rather you wouldn’t. I bring my girlfriend up here. If she saw that, she wouldn’t come with me anymore,’” Owen said. “There’s still a lot of superstition about graves.”
“Of all the people who are going to bother you, they’re not around here,” Lowrey said, pointing to the surrounding gravestones.
The men said they aren’t concerned about ghosts or spirits, but one thing they do could be considered spooky by some. Lowrey is a “dowser,” someone who uses a pair of rods to indicate if there’s a hole underground.
The rods cross when he steps over the edge of the hole and they uncross when he walks past the other edge. That’s the theory.
Besides, Lowrey said with a smile, “Who’s going to dig it up and see if I got it right?”
Owen described himself as a “benevolent agnostic” when it came to dowsing, but that was before he met Lowrey. Now, he’s a believer. He taught the practice to his son-in-law, who promptly found a cat’s grave in the backyard.
“The main thing is you have to think about not falling when you take a step,” Owen said.
When the pair come upon abandoned cemeteries with toppled stones, Lowrey pulls out his dowsing rods to find graves that are no longer marked. There’s no tombstone information to put on www.findagrave.com in those cases, but dowsing is a form of remembrance for places overrun by neglect and malice.
“I heard about this boy. He wanted to see how strong his four-wheeled drive was,” Lowrey said. “They just ran back and forth, just because they could.”
“Pitiful,” Owen said.
A few minutes later, Owen pointed out a tombstone that had been knocked over by a fallen tree limb.
“You see? This isn’t vandalism. Nature takes its toll, too,” he said. “After 100 years, you can see what the weather will do, even to marble.”
What they can
Taphophiles are no match for the combined forces of water, wind, air and time, nor can they do anything about one of the most powerful forces on earth: human stupidity.
But Lowrey and Owen can walk through the backwoods and push through briar patches to re-learn what’s been forgotten, then make that knowledge easy to find for the next seeker.
They can glue stones back together, and pick up cans, bottles and other debris left behind by careless visitors.
And they can bow their heads in respect when the moment calls for reverence.
“If you’re hunting and come across an old cemetery,” Owen said, “you’ve come across something important.”
Lowrey nodded his agreement, as wind blew leaves across a cemetery that won’t soon be forgotten.