Reused Graves and Other Problems at Eastern Cemetery – Jefferson County

I have been to Eastern Cemetery in Louisville twice within a two-month time period.  Ritchey and I were there around the first of October of last year; Linton and I came again the first of December.  This cemetery is beside the much larger Cave Hill Cemetery, both located on Baxter Avenue in Louisville, Jefferson County.

There have been many rumors over the years about what was going on in Eastern Cemetery, how rules were broken, and families should be concerned if their loved ones were buried in the correct graves – or who else may be buried there with them.

There are stories from as long ago as the 1850’s when bodies were buried in mass pauper’s graves, which, to be truthful, was not illegal at that time.  For the many who came through Louisville and Jefferson County in those days, those who died without funds for a proper burial, probably came to their end in a pauper’s grave.

The cholera epidemic of 1880 also caused a large number of people dying within a short amount of time and burials needed quickly.

Shortly after that time the cemetery ownership began to reuse graves over and over.  There are the more grisly aspects of bodies that were donated to science.  Legally, the body is to be buried – or cremated – intact.  It has been said that although each box was to hold a full body that was not always the case.  One could hold any number of heads, arms or legs.  And the containers of human remains were not always buried deep enough – especially infant remains.

When Ritchey and I attended the Kentucky History and Genealogy Conference at the Louisville Free Public Library in August of 2017 I listened to Phil DiBlasi, the Staff Archaeologist at the University of Louisville talk about 19th and 20th century burial practices, but he also spoke about the problems at Eastern Cemetery and gave just a bit of information on it.  This led me to more research and finding this article in the 1989 Courier Journal.  This is so heartbreaking for family members and genealogists.

When we visited Eastern Cemetery, it was very depressing to see so many stones overturned and broken.  And the further back you drove, the worse it looked.  The cemetery is not regularly maintained, only volunteers care for it now.  But kudos to those volunteers!

The Courier Journal, Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky

Wednesday, July 19, 1989

Myrtle Dudgeon is ‘simply horrified’ by the thought that her husband, James, was buried in another person’s grave at Eastern Cemetery in Louisville on May 31.

Worse still, she said, is that an indictment returned Friday says the skeletal remains taken when her husband’s grave was dug were distributed ‘on the surface of various graves and in a storage vault.’

‘This is a terrible thing . . . a horrible thing to bury somebody in someone else’s grave,’ Dudgeon said.

Some survivors of those buried in the cemeteries are resigned to the possibility that family remains may be lost forever.

Anne Palmer went to Eastern Cemetery early this year to see the unmarked graves of her brothers, who were buried in 1918 after dying during an influenza epidemic.  She said she’s visited them ‘many, may times’ and ‘I know what I’m talking about.’

‘My father, mother and my brother are all buried there, and I found them without problems,’ she said.  ‘I know where my brothers are supposed to be, but they’re not there.’

Palmer, 66, said last month that Eastern Cemetery’s records are ‘incorrect, because they’re telling me my brothers are buried in one place and I know they’re in another.’

Lula Wiesmann, 78, corroborated her sister’s story, as did a third sister, Rebecca Dunn.

The sisters told a report where the brothers were supposed to be buried, and also where Palmer was told to go by cemetery officials during a recent visit.  When the reporter asked to see the graves, Alexander, the corporation’s executive director, showed him a third site.

Alexander explained the discrepancies by saying that ‘many people forget what a cemetery looks like and really don’t know for sure where graves are at.’

Eugenia Brown said she is positive about where she buried her uncle in 1960 and her father in 1968.  They were placed side by side in the shade of a tall tree, she said.

Brown said that the records at Eastern ‘are definitely fouled up’ and that the cemetery’s card file didn’t list either her uncle or father until after she complained.

‘When I went out Monday, they told me that my father was clear over in another section of the cemetery, and yesterday he was back near my uncle,’ she said.  ‘Now they’re saying that they’re not side by side, and I know how we buried them.’  Brown said that even the headstones around her father’s grave don’t match the cemetery records she was provided with.

‘I never knew anything could be such a screwed-up mess . . . It’s almost comical.’

Oscar Franzmann isn’t laughing about his encounter with Eastern that’s mentioned in one of the36 counts of theft by deception against the Louisville Crematory.

A dear friend and neighbor of Franzmann’s died 17 years ago and Franzmann paid for the burial.  He and his wife had promised the friend ‘she’d have a decent burial and always be taken care of.’

Franzmann paid $15 per year for ‘perpetual care’ that is supposedly guaranteed when people pay for a burial.  Franzmann was charge a one-time, ‘lifetime fee of $150’ last year – which he paid, he said.

The indictment filed last week claims all of the charges he paid were illegal.  Perpetual care is supposed to be covered by trust funds set up with money from the initial burial fee.  The indictment also alleges that the corporation failed to establish the trust funds.

Attorney Fred Cowan said his staff will continue to investigate any further allegations against the Louisville Crematory, which is also accused of failing to dispose of 244 bodies that were cremated.

But Lula Wiesmann said she remembers the day she awoke from an influenza-induced coma to find out that her brothers had died of the same illness.  And she said she vividly remembers the first walk to their graves and each one thereafter.

‘I remember going down there for years, and not to where (cemetery officials) are saying,’ she said.

‘Now it looks like we’ve got nothing but our memories,’ she said.

The Louisville Crematory and Cemeteries co., Inc., may have buried as many as 48,000 people in previously occupied graves in Eastern and Greenwood cemeteries, according to the findings of investigators for the state attorney general’s office.

Some graves have been found to contain the remains of as many as six people, and graves containing the remains of three or four is ‘a common occurrence,’ said Phil DiBlasi, an archaeologist who has examined the contents of about 100 graves at the cemeteries.

Remains from previous burials were found so often in a section of Eastern Cemetery called ‘Babyland’ that about 70 infants were buried only 10 to 18 inches deep in an effort to avoid bones, employees have told investigators.

Three company officials who ran the cemeteries during the 1980’s have been indicted in connection with these practices.

But DiBlasi said his work has determined that ‘this isn’t something that started with these folks back in the ‘70s’ as was first suspected.

‘This has been going on for a very long time.’

DiBlasi said his excavations indicate that graves were being reused as early as the mid-1920’s in Eastern Cemetery.  Cemetery records indicate it was probably full shortly after the turn of the century.  Comprising 15 acres, Eastern had enough room for about 18,000 bodies under existing cemetery-industry standards.  But investigators have estimated that about 51,000 have been buried there, according to DiBlasi and a report by another investigator filed in the court case.

The report of Jim Caldwell, an investigator for the attorney general’s office, also estimated that about 15,000 too many bodies had been buried at Greenwood.

‘It may be beyond the abilities of most people to comprehend just what has gone on out here,’ DiBlasi said.

The 141-year-old cemetery company, which has served mostly the poor and middle class, came under scrutiny in May, when Bob Allen, a grave-digger and maintenance worker for eight years, called the attorney general’s office to report the alleged burial practices, Caldwell’s report said.

During the subsequent investigation, Caldwell found human bones throughout Eastern Cemetery – in a truck’s glove compartment, in a storage shed, in dirt piles and even in a White Castle hamburger bag, his report said.

In a burial vault, he discovered a cabinet containing old burial records.  In a cabinet and on shelves in the crematory’s cellar, he found the remains of 244 cremated bodies, many unidentified.  DiBlasi said he and Caldwell have also uncovered several buried gravestones while digging up graves.

According to Caldwell’s report, card files at the company’s offices listed what he roughly estimated as a total of 71,000 burials at both cemeteries.  And DiBlasi said another burial register, discovered in the company office, listed another 10,000 Eastern burials.

In an interview, Allen, the grave-digger, said the reuse of graves went on at both cemeteries through the eight years he worked for the company.

At one point in the mid-1980’s, Allen said, he dug ‘650 to 700’ graves a year and ’98 to 99 percent of them’ already contained human remains.

‘We were told to always go around and pick up anything left over after burials,’ Allen said, explaining how bones got into the many places Caldwell found them.  ‘Sometimes, we just used what we had to pick them up.  Later, when we had time, we’d dig a hole and bury them if there were no open graves.’

Allen told of a time when a skull was dug up and inadvertently left sitting atop a dirt pile during a funeral.  ‘That happened within the past year,’ said Allen, but the grieving family never saw it ‘and we put it back in the hole after they left.’

Other employees shared Allen’s concerns about the practices, according to depositions they have given in the court case.

Beth Selch, the company’s secretary since 1986, and Barbara Rhea, who worked as a bookkeeper for year and a half, said employees talked among themselves about making changes or going to authorities, and also told their superiors of their concerns.

‘It got so bad that our eyes wouldn’t even meet anymore,’ Selch said.

Finally, Allen called the attorney general’s office.  ‘It kept on happening, and I just knew nothing was going to change unless I did something,’ he said.

A Jefferson County grand jury returned a 60-count criminal indictment against the company in July; Charles Alexander, Jr., the executive director since May 1986; Clifford B. Amos, Cr., the board president who had been acting executive director from 1980 to 1986; and Robert Copley, vice president of the board, who began to work for the company in October 1987.

They are to be tried in February on charges that include the reuse of graves and abuse of corpses.  They could receive prison terms ranging from 188 to 268 years, plus fines of up to $4,000 if they are convicted.  The company can be fined up to $1.12 million.

All three have resigned.

Several employees cooperated in the investigation, although each knew it meant they would probably end up unemployed.  In fact, Rhea was laid off in July and Allen was laid off in October.

‘You have to understand, we just wanted this to all be straightened out for so long,’ said Selch, who still works there.

Allen and Ron Aubrey, a maintenance worker and grave-digger for the company for about 18 years, led Caldwell to some of the reused graves.  Selch helped go through records and typed warrant information and evidence forms for the attorney general’s office.

The company continued to sell graves until the investigation began, but Rhea said it had been unable to pay all its bills regularly and was thousands of dollars short in trust accounts.  Employees, including Amos and Copley – who drew about $75 a week plus expenses – continued to be paid despite the shortage of funds.

Among the charges against Amos, Copley and Alexander are theft by deception for selling used graves and failure to maintain two trust funds for future burials and for care of graves – which state investigators said are short $117,940.

But Selch said that it has been the reuse of graves that has outraged people.

‘We’ve had hundreds of calls and people coming out here, but only one, may two, were about the trust funds,’ she said.  ‘The graves and the bones are what the people are angry about.’

4 replies »

  1. This is beyond sad for the families of the deceased. I wonder now how many other cemeteries are guilty of this too. I take comfort in knowing that everyone will come forth from their graves (wherever they may be) on Resurrection Day and be made whole again in body and spirit. The Good Lord knows each of us and will make sure everything is set to rights.

  2. For some reason, I think I have heard that reusing gravesites is common in some European countries. After a certain period of time, when a coffin and/or bones have rotten away, another casket can be placed in the gravesite. Don’t know that it is true – the situation in this cemetery though, is beyond horrible!

  3. I’d like to find John G Mitchell’s civil war burial. He died 20 sept 1862 of pneumonia during war in Indianapolis hospital and buried close by. The cemetery was Crest hill I believe. If you know of this cemetery let me know. Thanks! Susan Lassy DAR 270-933-8058

    Sent from my iPhone


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