Friends of Eastern Cemetery seek caretakers for past generations - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Friends of Eastern Cemetery seek caretakers for past generations' crumbling home

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Eastern Cemetery's aging headstones lie in ruin, with some chance the people they memorialize don't lie beneath them. Eastern Cemetery's aging headstones lie in ruin, with some chance the people they memorialize don't lie beneath them.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Right next door to Cave Hill Cemetery is Eastern Cemetery, which has a very different story from its neighbor. Juxtaposed with Cave Hill's clean, white rows of headstones lie Eastern's cracked and crumbled monuments, toppled over and leaning against each other like old friends.

"Apparently getting drunk in Kentucky and kicking over headstones is considered a recreational activity," U of L staff archaeologist Phillip DiBlasi said.

But the appearance of Eastern Cemetery isn't the worst part. It's what lies below.

"They were digging through bodies and crunching them into pieces, and putting new bodies in," DiBlasi explained.

Almost from its start in the 1800s, graves were reused. DiBlasi said that continued until about June 1989.

"Believe it or not, they started in 1843 and by 1850, we start noticing in the documentation evidence that they're overburying," he said. "They're using graves over again."

DiBlasi was brought in to study the cemetery in the late '80s.

"In 1989 a man came forward and said, they're reusing graves over again, this is not right," DiBlasi said. "and he went to the Attorney General's Office."

"The Office of the Attorney General began to investigate and found out this was true," said Allison Martin with the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General. "Not only were people being double buried in plots but sometimes triple, quadruples, eight or nine bodies buried in one plot of cemetery."

About 130,000 people are buried in a cemetery that should only hold 30,000.

"They literally found McDonald's bags under the front seat of the truck with human remains in them," DiBlasi said. "When we got a court order to bring the records to the university when I pulled the file drawers open, there were human remains back behind the file cards. They were digging through people willy nilly and it was really obvious."

A big building at the back of Eastern Cemetery really serves no purpose. It used to hold hundreds of urns inside, but people were dumping the ashes and taking the urns to sell as scrap metal. Under a court order, the more than 600 urns were brought here for safekeeping, and more than 200 sit on the shelves unclaimed.

Criminal charges were dismissed and financial claims were wiped out against the corporation that owned Eastern Cemetery.

"The cemeteries went bankrupt and they're in limbo," Martin said. "Nobody wants to buy a cemetery that doesn't have any burial plots left because there's no way to make any money off of it."

It's a nightmare underground that would take millions of dollars to make right.

"It's a political nightmare, it's a financial nightmare," DiBlasi said. "It was a phenomenal figure to correct what was wrong underground."

Above ground, Dismas Charities and a few thousand dollars out of a perpetual care fund keep the grass cut, but that is not enough.

A steady group of volunteers has also been working there since March 2013.

Recently, the group has established itself as a non-profit organization called Friends of Eastern Cemetery, allowing room for tax-deductable donations and sponsors.

"Louisville prides itself on its historic district, prides itself on being weird. Here's this cemetery right in the middle of it all, that you know, is just almost invisible to the community it seemed like," said Andy Harpole, with friends of Eastern Cemetery.

They don't just mow and trim, they fix headstones and unearth some swallowed by tree roots.

It's a huge undertaking that is time consuming and costly.

"It's not five years, it's not 10 years, it's not 20 years, 30, 40, 50 60, 100. It's forever and it's a tremendous amount of money and hundreds of millions of dollars," Martin said.

Andy Harpole, president of the Friends of Eastern Cemetery, says he has long-term goals.

From day one people have said, you're not going to make a difference there. People have cut the grass once or twice and they don't come back," Harpole said. "We're doing it because we want to do it. we're doing it because we've met the families and heard their stories."

To donate or volunteer for Friends of Eastern Cemetery, click here.

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