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On the impossibility of accurately describing who is in the cemetery

February 8, 2015

Rose Hill Cemetery has a potter’s field, a charity area where purple asters and other wildflowers grow amid tall grasses, rabbitbrush, and lilies someone planted long ago. Some of the graves are marked with tombstones, but most are unmarked, or marked with twisted metal markers which have no names. In the late 1990s, I asked Orval Sowder, my town’s former mortician, if he knew who was buried there, and he said that if someone kept records, he had been unable to find them.  The people buried there are largely unknown and unknowable.

In the many decades before DNA testing was available, bodies were found, buried, and forgotten because there was no way to identify them.  Thus, in the July 30, 1909 edition of the Rifle Reveille, there’s an article entitled Dead Man Found on a Sand Drift:

J.J. Saites, a colored man employed on the section gang found the body of a dead man on a sand bar in the middle of the Grand [now Colorado] River one half mile below Rifle Thursday morning about 11 o’clock.  While fishing on the south bank of the river Saites noticed something that resembled a human foot on a sandbar.  He crossed the small channel of the river and discovered the body lying face up in the edge of the water…The body was that of a young man about 30 years old and weighing perhaps 135 pounds.  He was about 5 feet four inches in height.  There being no clothing on the body it is supposed that he drowned while swimming…

In the graphic detail typical of the time, the article describes the body:  [It] was in a bad state of decomposition, and evidently had been there for a week as the skin was badly burned by the sun and the hair had nearly all fallen off the scalp. Identification is probably impossible on account of the sunken and decomposed condition of the face.

They added that the body was buried at the cemetery.

When I read articles like that, I want to say, “Hey, keep a sample of his hair and maybe we can figure out who he’s related to in a hundred years.”  However, these were people who didn’t even keep accurate records. They seemed to think they’d live forever, so no one would need an accurate map of who was buried in the charity section.  I know that in geological terms, it doesn’t matter, but when I read a story like that, it matters to me because I want to know where he ended up.  After all, I’m human, and humans are irrational.

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