Reading the Soil

By  |  March 13, 2018
Untitled (2011), by Gwynne Johnson from This Doubtful Paradise, archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist Untitled (2011), by Gwynne Johnson from This Doubtful Paradise, archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist

If the earth is wet enough and acidic enough, the first thing you’ll find when you start digging up a grave is a coffin-shaped halo in the ground. That’s the mark left by the pinewood walls of the casket as they decayed into deep umber in the dirt. Everything else—the lid, the body itself, and whatever earthly treasures went into the hole along with it—has been pushed down to the bottom. The halo descends about a foot, until you reach the grave’s lowest stratum, where you can find scraps of bone, or metal, or just more multicolored dirt. In drier conditions, you might find a lot more than that. 

Susan Grzybowski, who has presided over nine thousand reburials for the engineering firm Louis Berger, has found completely articulated skeletons in hundred-year-old graves. She worked on two of the biggest cemetery-relocation projects of the past twenty years: 4,571 graves moved from Potter’s Field in Secaucus to make way for an expansion of the New Jersey Turnpike, and 1,494 moved from St. Johannes Cemetery in Chicago when O’Hare wanted to lengthen a runway. “There’s no such thing as a final resting place,” Grzybowski told me. “Perpetuity is a word that’s no longer used in the funeral industry.” 

An unwanted cemetery represents a failure of imagination, a fatal overestimation of the human capability to create permanence. The farmers of the nineteenth century established family plots because they thought their families would never abandon their land. The urban planners put giant memorial parks outside the city limits, until the suburbs enveloped them. St. Johannes, established in 1849, was meant to last until the Day of Judgment, but the city got to the gate first. 

Companies like Louis Berger have made a business of solving the legal, financial, and moral problems that emerge when a growing population bumps up against a supposedly final resting place. At O’Hare, they had archaeologists like Grzybowski on site, genealogists to identify next of kin, and funeral directors to get the necessary permits from the state. Grzybowski said she found the funeral directors particularly useful because she was “less familiar with human tissue.” 

Several years ago, I met a funeral director who ran the whole show himself: R. Ward Sutton of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Ward had graduated from mortuary school in 1964 and worked as an undertaker for twenty years before switching to cemetery relocations full time. He told me he saw a business opportunity when he realized, “Most funeral directors don’t want to get their hands dirty.” In his career, he had moved nearly ten thousand individual graves. 

Ward relocated a few cemeteries a month, most of them one-day jobs: a dozen or so graves, an old family plot being sacrificed to a dollar store. A few years back, he moved more than three hundred graves for the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune. When BMW opened an assembly plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, he helped relocate an old slave graveyard on the site. Recently, a lot of the bigger jobs had been for mining companies digging for phosphates that would eventually be plowed back into the North Carolina soil in the form of fertilizer. 

In September 2012, Ward invited me along on a job in Walstonburg, which is thirty miles south of Rocky Mount and due west of a slightly larger town called Farmville. There were five graves in the middle of a soybean field that a family wanted to move to a perpetual-care cemetery in town. Ward picked me up the night before the dig, a Friday, in a white BMW that looked too small for his tall, sturdy frame. He explained that it was his wife’s car, but that she had died a few months earlier, in May. Her death had been a surprise. “Sue was the picture of health,” Ward told me. He had recently ordered a mausoleum for the two of them—“pre-need” in his case, he said—but it was delayed as the masons waited for the epoxy that held the stones together to set. He was paying $12 a letter for hand-chiseled letters rather than $2 or $2.50 for sandblasted. (“You don’t do it but once.”) The granite floor inside the mausoleum is eighteen inches off the earth, then there’s another foot to the shelf where he would be, then above him his wife. That way, he said, she would always be dry. 

As Ward drove me around Rocky Mount—a city of about fifty-five thousand in the eastern part of the state, tobacco country—every sight, every routine, every memory was another occasion to talk about Sue. He also spoke mournfully about all the buildings knocked down for parking lots. There used to be nice houses near the train tracks for railroad employees, but that was over now. All the businesses had shifted out of town to the malls and the big-box stores. 

My hotel was out near the big-box stores. It used to be farmland, then it was a Best Buy. Now that’s gone, too. Ward said that when they expanded the access road there, he was hired to move a few old graves. Unlike the rest of the funeral business, which is supposedly recession-proof, the cemetery-relocation business follows the boom and bust of the economy as a whole. No graveyard, no matter how historic, is going to get in the way of BMW when it’s selling cars. When the cycle trends down, well, you hope for a one-day job on an old farm. 

 

Ward picked me up the next morning at 5:45. He was wearing a flannel shirt tucked into khakis and driving his own car now, a Chevy 3500HD pickup. It was fancy on the inside, with leather and wood paneling, backup monitor, the works. (“It’s got the Cadillac interior,” Ward said.) It was the nth iteration of the same vehicle he’d had for more than a decade, he explained. “I don’t want anyone to know I have a new truck. That way they don’t think I’m getting to be too prosperous.” 

We drove to a farm fifteen minutes outside of town to pick up a man named Steve Ward, who worked the backhoe at the gravesites. Steve was important enough to the operation that Ward had recently changed the name of his company from R. Ward Sutton Cemetery Services to Ward and Ward. (No relation, Steve noted: “His first name is Ward and my last name is Ward.”) They had done their first job together in 1986, after Ward moved the cemetery from Steve’s family farm. 

Steve grew up in Rocky Mount—“I was a city boy,” he said—but moved out to the farm when he was eleven years old. Most of Ward and Ward’s equipment was stored on Steve’s farm, including the Big Hearse, an International panel truck with a custom interior. (Ward had machined most of the tools he used, such as a special rig for lifting steel burial vaults out of the ground; there weren’t any off-the-shelf parts for what he did.) The company’s name change preceded any real partnership; at the time, Steve was just an employee. The plan was that when Ward retired, Steve would get a three-quarters share of Ward and Ward, and Ward’s daughter would get the rest. By that time, Steve would have his funeral-director’s license, which is required for anyone looking to move a grave. 

The ride down to Walstonburg took an hour, and along the way Ward told a story about a relocation he did a few months back. A widower with kids had married a widow with kids of her own. When the man died a few years ago, the second wife insisted that he be buried in a plot with a space for her. His kids wanted him back with their mom, but they let him be buried in the new plot. After the second wife died, both sets of kids reunited both sets of parents. 

Ward: “When I got in the business, everybody ‘died.’ Now they say, ‘They got their rewards,’ or ‘They passed.’ I asked a psychologist about it, whether that meant people weren’t as comfortable with death as they used to be. She said it was a very good question but she didn’t know. I told her that I thought it might just be what happened when the families started writing the obituaries rather than the funeral director.” 

 

We arrived at a white clapboard house on the edge of a soybean field. Ward climbed out of the truck and went over to greet the family that owned the field and the graveyard that stood in the middle of it. I had expected farmers, but the family had never worked this land. They leased it to a local who grew the soybeans. One of the owners, Doyle, was a Harvard grad, class of 1955. (He later told me he wrote his dissertation on Spenser’s Faerie Queene under Douglas Bush, who is apparently the sixth-greatest scholar of Renaissance literature in the world. That was my inference, in any case, after Doyle said, “If I wrote down a list of the six greatest scholars of Renaissance literature, Douglas Bush would be on that list.”) I asked Doyle’s brother-in-law, Sam, why they had decided to move the graveyard now. “Maintenance is the big problem,” he said. “It’s not what a burial place should look like.” The oldest graves were a hundred and fifty years old, and the enclosure was falling down. They didn’t want to leave the problem to future generations. Also, the plot reduced the land’s yield. 

Steve fired up the backhoe and drove it into the field. As he rolled toward the cemetery, the smell of fresh crushed green filled the air. The final members of the crew arrived: Robert and Ernest Locklear, nephew and uncle, who would be doing most of the heavy lifting that day. The Locklears were members of the Lumbee tribe of Robeson County, North Carolina. (There are about fifty-five thousand Native Americans in Robeson County—enough that Andrew Jackson Highway, which runs through the southern part of the state from the Tennessee border to Wilmington, has been renamed American Indian Highway for the thirty-two miles that lie within the county.) Ernest and Robert didn’t mention their tribal affiliation, but Ward seemed to take it for granted that their bloodline made them better at their jobs: better at unearthing ancient remains, better at what he called “reading the soil.” Later in the day, Robert would tell me that Ward’s theory about their Native American blood was bullshit; he was good at his job because he’d been doing it for thirty years. 

Once we reached the plot, the crew began by removing the headstones and footstones. There were four markers: Seth Gray Fields (1842–1928, GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN), Martha A. R. Fields (wife of Seth, 1845–1885, SHE IS NOT DEAD BUT SLEEPETH), one shared by Bennett Fields (1797–1883) and his wife Margaret (1803–1862, THERE IS NO PARTING IN HEAVEN), and one for the unnamed infant son of F. A. and Appie Fields, who was born and died in 1898. 

They always tore up a plot the same way: northeast corner, then left to right, row by row. Steve maneuvered the backhoe into position and began stripping the soil off the infant’s grave a few inches at a time. (If a backhoe shovel could be described as digging gingerly, that was what he did.) At the first sign of the coffin halo, Robert hopped down into the pit with a shovel. He dug and sifted a quarter shovelful at time, depositing anything that belonged to the casket or the body in a milk-crate-sized pine box that sat beside the grave. 

A lot of what ended up in the box looked like dirt. Plenty of it was dirt. It wasn’t always clear to me why Robert would throw one shovelful of soil off to the side and put another one carefully in the box. He was assiduous about picking out all the nails, and whatever human relics he could find: buttons, hairpins, casket handles. It seemed strange that these things, and not the body, took up most of our attention on site. An old grave like this showed the futility—or should we say the mainly symbolic nature—of what we were out there to do that day. 

Ward handed Robert a measuring stick marked in black and white to record the depth of the grave. Very few people are buried six feet under, Robert said. Eighteen inches is all that’s required for new graves in North Carolina today. This one looked to be about two feet down to where the casket had been and three feet at the bottom. The crew took a photograph of the measuring stick, the box, and the hole, along with a sign with moveable letters that listed the name as INFANT

Martha Fields’ grave was much deeper, almost nine feet at the bottom. Steve dug and dug until Ernest held up his hand to indicate they’d reached the casket. (Steve: “Nobody tells you this, but the backhoe is the most crucial part of the operation.”) In Martha’s grave they found more coffin handles, a zinc casket screw with an embellished top, some black buttons from her dress, and a tortoiseshell comb that had most likely been placed in her hair at burial. We also saw our first bones of the day: a handful of orange teeth and a part of her jawbone. Everything went in her pine box. 

Robert explained that what comes out must go back in the ground, according to the law. “Anything short of that is grave robbing.” Ward nodded, adding: “What’s in the grave is property of the grave.” He told the story of a fight he had with the niece of a woman who had a diamond ring in her grave. The niece claimed the ring belonged to her because she was the woman’s favorite niece. As news spread that they’d found a diamond, the number of heads peeking in around the grave multiplied. Ward disappointed them all when he made plain that the woman would be buried with the jewelry again. 

Robert saw evidence of more excavation beyond the cemetery wall—the first of four unmarked graves they eventually discovered on the site—so after Martha and her husband, Seth, were removed the crew widened its search. Ward reminded everyone, with a glance at Doyle and Sam, that he got paid by the number of bodies he relocated: “I don’t work by the job, I work by the grave.” 

Almost immediately Robert found two finger bones buried very shallow. No indication of a casket. He seemed perplexed and Ward muttered to himself about how unusual it was. I started to spin theories in my head about a murder and a late-night illicit burial, or an unwanted child hastily disposed of more than a century ago. Then Robert found a short leg bone and a long canine tooth, and the game was up. “Tuffy!” Sam yelled out. It was the family dog who had lived on the farm in the fifties. Tuffy’s bones, the best preserved we had seen so far, went into a box marked DOG

There was time for one more grave before lunch, another unmarked one. After a few scrapes of the backhoe, Ward and Robert simultaneously shouted, “Mummy box!” The other haloes had been squarish, but this one was the elongated hexagon we normally associate with coffins. Robert said this was the oldest grave by far. He scraped back the dirt extra carefully, exposing two reddish parallel swaths in the sandy soil: the femurs. He took a thin scoop, and two lines became four as he exposed the empty space where the marrow was. In the shovel, the bones themselves melted into dirt like all the rest. 

 

As we walked out of the field to lunch at Doyle’s house, Robert told me that he and his uncle had worked with Ward for seven years, but he got started digging up graves in 1986. Ernest had been doing it since the sixties. They did a lot of contract work for archaeologists, a profession they held in low esteem. Ernest talked about one archaeologist on a job in Georgia who was nearly soil blind. Again and again, Ernest would insist that he’d found a grave, but the archaeologist couldn’t see it. Ernest asked the man how long he’d been an archaeologist. Twenty years. “You ain’t telling me shit,” Ernest told him in his low-country drawl. Eventually they found five baby graves that no one knew were there, with the skeletons (“skillikins”) still intact to prove it, and the archaeologist had to admit he was wrong. 

I asked Robert how he wanted to be buried—if, like Ward, he was concerned with staying dry. He shook his head. He was content to disappear: “Put me in a pine box and let me go. I’m going there anyway.” He objected to the idea of cremation, but that seemed more like a matter of professional self-interest. Cremation means less business for gravediggers. 

Back in the field, Robert and Ernest found another unmarked grave. Reading the soil here was child’s play: As the backhoe scraped back the layers of dirt, the red clay slowly revealed a perfectly formed, baby-size mummy box in ochre. 

After the baby’s cubic yard of dirt was moved into a box marked UNKNOWN, there was only one grave left to excavate. Steve took a big scoop out of the earth, and Ernest hopped into the hole with the probe. He held up his fingers in a pinch, climbed out, and Steve took another six inches off the top. Then Robert jumped in and started shoveling. There was a clear black line in the soil: one side of Bennett Fields’s box. 

In Bennett’s grave, Robert picked out rubber from the dead man’s shoes and a bunch of buttons. When they hit bottom, Robert handed me the measuring stick and told me to climb in. I slid over the edge and dropped to the bottom. Ground level was at my collarbones. I reached out and felt the clay. It was warmer than I thought it would be. The sides were packed tight and smooth, but the bottom of the grave, the last bit of soil below where the casket lay, was sandy, chunky. When I ducked my head down, the sound of the wind and the crew died immediately. 

 

It was past four when they loaded the last box into the Big Hearse. There was a smell in the air that was insistently organic without being offensive. The Fields family’s old plot would soon be just a soybeanless patch within a field of soybeans, and then, next year, not even that. 

The reinterment itself was similar to any cemetery burial, except we were doing nine boxes at once. Perpetual-care places like the one in Walstonburg provide some guarantee of permanence, at least in theory: You pay a steep up-front fee, but you don’t have to worry about the next generation letting the graves crumble into nothing. The graves at Walstonburg seemed pretty safe. Commercial development—the biggest threat to historic sites of all sizes and shapes—seemed unlikely to touch this part of North Carolina anytime soon. The town itself was a single crossroad, with an old railroad depot at its center that was given to the town after passenger service ended in 1948. We drove from Railroad Street to Main Street to Cemetery Street, and we were there. 

Steve arrived with the backhoe, fitted with a bigger bucket now. He sliced the grass off the topsoil and set it aside to replace later. Doyle brought out lawn chairs, and the family sat and watched as the boxes were lowered into one grave after another. The sun was nearly at the horizon. Someone asked Robert where Tuffy was buried. “Pooch? We put him back down. They said, ‘He’s a farm dog; leave him on the farm.’” 

Steve compacted the soil on top of the final grave, and Ernest raked the extra dirt that Steve had piled to one side. Ward set four skinny stakes around the new gravesite. In a few days they would put dry Sakrete in a shallow hole beside each grave and place the monument on top. The moisture in the soil would set up the concrete. In a few months, the graves would be indistinguishable from any others in the cemetery. 

 

That night at dinner, Ward talked wistfully about how the Sutton name would end with him. His solution to this problem—to the problem of death in general—was technical, but it’s no worse than any other available to us. He was getting the best stone and the best masons and building the strongest mausoleum he could imagine, with SUTTON hand-chiseled on the outside. Sue would soon be inside, high and dry, and before long so would he. And if someone like R. Ward Sutton came along a century down the line and tried to move his grave, they would at least have a hell of a hard time doing it. 

When Ward died, in February 2015, I called Steve to find out whether he had taken over the business. I was surprised to hear that he had not: Although Ward had worked in the funeral industry for a half century, he never wrote a will. “For someone as organized as he was,” Steve said, “I couldn’t believe it.” Steve had started his own company, Ward Cemetery Services, with equipment he bought from Ward’s daughter. He paid a funeral director a daily rate to accompany him on digs; he never got his license—he didn’t have time to do the required twelve-month apprenticeship. He spoke about it all with puzzlement but no rancor. 

The same crew still went on digs with Steve, though Robert eventually stopped showing up. Business had been slow. He’d only had a handful of assignments since Ward died: “Nothing of any size. Went for three and got twelve. Went for ten and got five.” 

Steve was the one who discovered Ward’s body. He found him in his driveway, sitting in the front seat of the Chevy with the Cadillac interior, looking like he was sleeping. He tapped on the window and Ward didn’t move. The motor was running and the radio was playing. Steve opened the door and saw that Ward had his arms across his lap, and his nose and chin were blue. The EMTs worked on him for a while with the defibrillator, but he didn’t come back. Steve said Ward had been to three funerals on the day he died. 

I looked up his obituary and saw that it began, “R. Ward Sutton, 74, passed away on Tuesday.”


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Christopher Cox is the executive editor of GQ and the former editor of Harper’s Magazine.