For many years, the old Howard Johnson restaurant on Hillandale Road was a sleepy, sunlit place where you could eat a caramel sundae and watch the traffic go by. The sundaes were small miracles, styled high with whipped cream and delivered by a waitress with tangerine hair and a ravaged complexion. The traffic was even better, for it was here that you could watch I-85 as it twisted around the northwest corner of Durham. Although the lights were pretty at night, I preferred watching cars on summer days, when saffron rhomboids of light would pour through the restaurant’s plate-glass windows. Watching traffic is an exquisite meditation; people who find it a waste of time are not to be trusted.
Several years ago, the Howard Johnson restaurant was bought out by the Pan Pan, a lively, round-the-clock diner that serves 29 different Kosher deli sandwiches and a wickedly lipidinous country buffet. The place hasn’t the same drowsy tempo as the Howard Johnson, but it’s still possible to wander in when business is slow and the sun warms the windows and the waitress lets you alone with the freeway traffic.
Last summer, on just such a day, I noticed something unusual in the landscape. It was a tombstone. Now, understand that the Pan Pan Diner sits in a sea of retail and commercial asphalt, on the very lip of a major East Coast thoroughfare. And yet here was this tombstone, one of 11 that sat inside a small, neat chain-link fence between the diner parking lot and Exit 174. The fence was threaded through with honeysuckle and trumpet vine, but the gate was open, so I walked in. In all, the tiny cemetery held 13 marked graves: Zero and Annie Proctor Lee; Eugene and Mary Beasley Grady; Lucy (Granny) and Joseph (Bud) Proctor and their son Charlie; William and Ann Latta Warren; Thomas Frank Scott; and three babies: Edgar Paul Lee and Margaret and Galedine Couch. Most of the buried had been born during the Civil War, and had died in the early decades of the 20th century.
In the year since I first spotted this small cemetery, I’ve kept my eye on it. Sometimes I walk over and pick up the beer bottles; one day I scraped chewing gum off baby Edgar’s gravestone. Another time–an October twilight–I saw a possum shuffling in the leaves near Zero and Annie Lee. It looked underworldly, a kind of marsupial Cerberus. When it saw me, it opened its pink smiling mouth and bared its teeth.
Nobody at the Pan Pan knows who tends the cemetery, or anything else about it. “It won’t matter for long,” one waitress told me last week. “When they widen I-85 up through here, it’ll be gone. They’ll pave right over it.”
Because we think of cemeteries as hallowed ground, sacred and inviolate, our taboos against disrupting them are powerful. And yet, while it’s a crime in North Carolina to throw trash into a cemetery, government agencies and private developers routinely, and legally, dig up graves and move them to other locations. Developers have the hardest time getting permission to move cemeteries, and that difficulty can translate into some shady cover-ups, particularly if the graveyard hasn’t been tended to for several decades. A while back, I interviewed a North Raleigh couple for a story about their child’s school. Years earlier, their neighborhood had been an enormous pine stand where horseback riding trails snaked past crumbling homesteads. I remembered riding there and coming across a graveyard barely visible in the trees. When I mentioned this, the woman grew pale and pointed to their dog, a cheerful yellow lab. “He brings things home sometimes,” she said. “You know … things. We always assumed they were deer bones.”
The agency responsible for most “relocations” in North Carolina is the state Department of Transportation. Last year the DOT moved 150 graves to make room for road projects. The number of cemeteries moved in recent years to make way for widening projects and new roads upset enough people that the agency formed a commission to address grave relocation policies. That commission recommended that the DOT do a better job finding family members and informing them of the relocation process, but it didn’t satisfy some people’s hope that the DOT would preserve graveyards at all costs. According to Deputy Transportation Secretary Dan DeVane, the DOT makes “every effort possible” to avoid moving cemeteries. Still, North Carolina has been settled for more than 500 years, and tiny graveyards cover the state. When those graves lie in the path of new roads, DOT officials turn to a man named Phil Ellen.
I called Ellen one afternoon at his office in Southern Pines and he said that, sure enough, he has spent the last 40 years digging up human remains and moving them to other cemeteries. Ellen has a languid, matter-of-fact voice; he enjoys talking about techniques and regulations, and he steers clear of any suggestion that the work he does is somehow, well, creepy. “I’m just not superstitious,” he said. “The way I feel about it, it’s the same as if I was building a bridge. The only time I got emotionally involved was when I had to move an all-babies section of a cemetery in Fayetteville. The babies hadn’t been buried all that long, and there were still tractors and toy trucks on the graves. That one got to me.”
Ellen began moving graves in mid-century, just as massive water reservoirs were being built across the country. He traveled from state to state, moving everything from tiny family plots to huge cemeteries in the vast flood plains. Nowadays, Ellen works almost entirely in North Carolina. Here, too, he handles cemeteries of all ages and sizes. He moved more than 1,000 graves from a Crest Street cemetery in Durham and 700 from the Falls Lake flood plain, but a lot of his work involves moving only a handful of graves from abandoned homes and farms.
The easiest graves to move, Ellen said, are the newer vaults made of concrete or metal. Those can be lifted by crane and placed on a truck. When moving older graves, Ellen’s job becomes less mechanical and more investigative. In untended cemeteries, tombstones and other markers are frequently missing, kicked over or covered with vegetation. In these cases, Ellen and his crew first clear the trees and undergrowth, then use a 4-foot long probing bar to locate spots where the earth has been disturbed.
Once the perimeters of the cemetery have been established, Ellen uses a backhoe to dig down through the topsoil and the root mat, scraping the top layer of dirt off the entire area. Then the probing bar is used to locate the actual graves. “Once dirt has been removed and put back into the ground,” Ellen said, “it’s always softer than the surrounding dirt, no matter how much time has passed.” And since the layers of clay, silt and sand are all mixed up by the time they’re shoveled back into graves, it’s frequently possible to see the outline of the grave. “Most times,” Ellen said, “it’s as distinctive as if you’d taken a magic marker and marked it off.”
When it’s time to move the contents of a grave, Ellen’s crew parks the backhoe and gets out their shovels. “It’s hardest with the very old graves, the ones that are from the 1800s,” he said. “When a body’s been in a grave for 150 years, what happens is, the container they were in collapses, and the body decays and falls down and turns to dirt. Even jewelry crumbles. It all creates a layer in the bottom of the grave. And even this layer of material gets thinner and thinner over time until you have a half-inch of material on the very bottom of the grave. That’s just what happens. The acid in the soil gets you, the tree roots feed there, the rain gets in. It’s just the facts. The Bible said you originated with dust and you will return to dust. And dust is what you are in the end.”
No matter how decomposed or dwindled, Ellen puts what he finds in what he calls a “replacement box,” made of pine or fiberglass. “We find every nail, every screw and casket handle, all the bones. We try to treat them as reverently as we can, but we’re working there with shovels and you do what you have to do to get the job complete.” I didn’t press the point.
The replacement caskets are then taken to a new site, usually a large commercial cemetery with plenty of plots of sell. Ellen says he makes every effort to put graves back in their original configurations: husbands and wives side by side, for example. If the new cemetery allows it, the original gravestones are re-mounted. Family members are welcome to watch the entire relocation process, and to have a burial ceremony. The general public, however, is kept away. “They just don’t have any business being there,” says Ellen. “If you let them, there’d be 400 people watching. And sure enough, the rumors would start. Things like, ‘Oh, I saw Johnny Jones take a skull and put it in the back of his car.’ Then you have a situation.”
Last spring, in the small graveyard next to the Pan Pan, I found a man sitting in the sun, drinking a Diet Coke. He had yellowish hair pulled back in a pony tail, and a Blondie concert-tour T-shirt. I thought maybe he was a family member who came to mow the grass and place fresh flowers, but he said no, his name was Scotch McGee, and he was driving from Massachusetts to Florida, as he did every spring, to find work for the summer. One year, he said, he got a job at a roadside wildlife exhibit, and spent the whole summer trying to keep the alligators from eating the emu.
I asked him if he thought it a little odd to take a nap in a cemetery, and he said, “Shoot no, they’re the best place to rest–it says so on all the tombstones!” He laughed and drank some of his drink. “I’m actually a connoisseur of these roadside graveyards,” he said. “I like the whole symbolism of the thing. I mean you’ve got your hectic life over there”–he waved at the interstate–“and here is where we all stand still.”
McGee said he did know of one haunted graveyard, up in the rural New England county where he grew up. A young girl named Melody had been buried there after smashing her car into a tree, but the graveyard, which sat next to a river, kept flooding, and the family decided to move the graves across the street, to higher ground.
“What happened after that,” he said, “was that all along that road we started to see these, what do you call them, apparitions. People said it was just fog, because of the river. But my mother called them vapors–she said they should never have moved those poor people. She and I would be driving down through there and she’d say, “God Above! There’s Melody, trying to get back to her final resting place.” McGee paused, then he said, “That happened probably a hundred times when I was a little kid–my mom yelling out like that. It scared the piss out of me every single time.”
I’m glad McGee didn’t know the fate of the little Durham graveyard he sat in. I also wish, in a way, that he hadn’t told me Melody’s story. I don’t know when the state will get around to widening that section of I-85 in northwest Durham. When it finally happens though, I hope baby Edgar will take the upheaval in stride. I hate to think of him wafting across the freeway, a tiny vapor, searching for the Pan Pan.