Friday, November 9, 2012

Bones in the Trees

Tree root with bones (photo Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent)
I was just sitting here in the kitchen on this cold November morning, sipping Italian coffee and listening to Miles, when I saw an interesting post on Facebook. Amidst all the photos of mass destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy, the post referred to an odd news article about a tree that was uprooted in a Connecticut cemetery.

I’ve written about cemetery trees in the past, about how they seem to have their own character - somehow lecherous and slightly macabre, their gnarled old branches reaching out to grab something or someone. You always suspect that the roots of those mighty oaks get tangled around unmentionable things deep beneath the surface. Well, wonder no more. When this large tree in an old New Haven, Connecticut cemetery was uprooted during Hurricane Sandy’s reign (end of October, 2012), there were human skulls and rib cages found tangled in its roots!

Visible among the roots of the giant oak tree, planted in 1909 on the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, was the back of an upside-down skull with its mouth still open. The skull was attached to a spine and rib cage.

"I noticed what I thought was a rock at first, I kind of poked it and a piece came off in my hand, and I noticed it was bone fragments. So I took a stick and knocked some of the dirt away and noticed it was an entire skull and body and vertebrae, ribs."

Human rib cage tangled in tree roots (Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent)
When I shared this news story with Facebook friends, I got two interesting comments related to cemetery trees. One was, “A friend & I were talking just the other day about how cemetery trees are really our ancestors.” That’s pretty profound. Another person added, “There was a superstition in the South that when a tree planted over a grave blows over, the ghost of the grave's occupant is set loose. That's the starting premise of Gene Wolfe's PEACE.”  [Wolfe is a science fiction/fantasy writer.]

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
I’ve seen many instances of arboreal overgrowth in many cemeteries, some of which may have resulted in a spirit being freed. When an old tree fell over in a storm recently in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, the grounds keeping crew was surprised to find a headstone in the middle of the tree trunk! Obviously, this was the work of maybe fifty years of tree growth that had gone unchecked. They sawed off the tree trunk around the headstone and left it that way.

Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, NJ
In a similar scenario, I was walking through Princeton Cemetery in Princeton, New Jersey when I came upon the toppled tree you see in this photo at right. Not one, but two small marble headstones can be seen in the center of the tree trunk! The roots of the tree most likely wound their way through the bones of those buried below. I originally thought this to be a good reason for placing a casket inside a protective concrete vault, to keep the tree roots from messing with the bones. However, the strength of tree roots cannot be underestimated.

Trees can damage monuments and headstones by lifting them off the level ground, or even push them over, as you can see in this photo from Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. Here, the roots didn’t do the damage, but a low-hanging tree branch actually grew out about twenty feet away from the trunk, slowly but surely knocking a six-foot-tall granite obelisk off its base! Ironically, the inscription on the base said, “See that my grave is kept green.”

So the lesson? If you’re responsible for taking care of a grave, don’t let that nearby tree get too big. Oh, and another lesson, this one more subtle - if you read the account of the bones tangled up in the New Haven tree (link below) you’ll note that the tree was actually in a park, not a cemetery. 

More accurately, it was in a cemetery that had been converted into a park in 1821! When such projects are implemented by towns, cities, and municipalities, the newspapers always say that the bodies were relocated to such-and-such cemetery. However, many times there is evidence to the contrary. Even if they attempt to dig up all the graves, they could miss a few. In my personal experience, the architects and planners must expect this, as the typical new construction project involves a level-with-the-ground playground or parking lot – something that does not require digging a foundation! 

The situation in New Haven was this (according to the New Haven Independent): “The last bodies were buried there in the 1700s ... In 1821, the stones were moved to the Grove Street Cemetery, and the ground was raised to level off the Green. The bodies remained behind.” (For the complete story on the New Haven cemetery tree, click here: