The Graveyard Shift BY FELIX GILLETTE
n a Monday afternoon in May, Teri Little strolls across her mother-in-law’s grave, holding an L-shaped copper probe in each hand. The probes look a bit like sawed-off coat hangers. Little points the wires ahead of her like pistols. She takes a few more steps, and the tips begin to swing inward, slowly crossing into an X. “That tells me there’s a grave,” says Little. “If I were really looking for one, I’d stop and flag it.” Little has brought me to the historic Perry Cemetery in northwest Houston, in part to demonstrate her grave-divining skills and in part to explain how she became Texas’ premier advocate for the cyber-privacy of dead folks. The dead, she argues, deserve to spend eternity resting underground in well-marked graves, not online in well-linked databases. Little believes that the myriad ongoing efforts to document cemeteries on the Internet are misguided. And it’s that belief (rather than her faith in the divining powers of copper wire) which separates Little from her peers. Dressed casually in jeans and hiking boots, Little gazes down through her sunglasses at the probes. Like oil witching and water witching, grave witching is a bit of classic, American folk juju. Using simple handheld sensors, certain charmed individuals can detect subterranean elements. Or so they say. “Kind of weird, isn’t it?” Little says. “My husband’s cousin’s husband is a geophysicist. He says it has to do with the magnetism of the Earth. All I know is that it works.” For the last several years, Little has helped run this small, two-and-a-half acre cemetery in a placid residential neighborhood in northwest Houston where many of her husband’s ancestors are buried. The cemetery sits along a leafy road, surrounded by houses, an industrial park, and a daycare center. Little jokingly calls it the “body farm,” alluding to the legendary forensic facility in Knoxville, Tennessee, where police investigators learn to identify decomposing corpses. Little occasionally brings visitors here to teach them how to identify unmarked graves. In addition to her copper probes, Little is also well versed in more formal methods of locating lost gravesites, such as surface stripping and ground-penetrating radar. She says that her fascination with unmarked graves dates back to 1999 when she and her husband began searching for the long-lost resting place of his great-great-great grandfather. After dancing the bureaucratic two-step with countless county officials, Little and her husband eventually discovered the grave in an abandoned cemetery in a secluded forest outside of Houston. Prior to their arrival, the Hargrave-Hilton graveyard had fallen into obscurity and disrepair. Vandals had ripped down many of the tombstones and piled them in a circle, forming a crude fire pit. Little says that the sight of the tombstone fire pit ignited her indignation and helped inspire her to become a cemetery preservationist. Despite her bewitchment with the fate of dead people, Little is anything but a morose person. Good-natured, blond-haired, hearty, in her early 40s, Little typically charges into a conversation, reeling off anecdotes and stories and jokes in a confident, full-tilt manner, noting whenever possible that she’s not entirely “dead serious” about dead people. Then again, she’s not someone to pursue her interests halfheartedly. Over the years, she’s made several trips to Austin to testify in front of the state legislature on behalf of cemetery issues. Along the way, she’s met more than enough lobbyists for the death-care industry to know that death in Texas is a for-profit business. But Little believes that there should be someone watching out for the dead who’s not simultaneously watching out for the bottom line. So while her husband works full-time as an engineer, Little volunteers full-time as an “advocate for the dead.” As it turns out, protecting dead people is harder than it sounds. There is a saying that grave robbing is the world’s second oldest profession, and Little remains vigilant against the threat. Tall fences surround Perry Cemetery on all sides. “No Trespassing” signs hang at intervals. On Halloween, Little stations volunteers on night-watch among the gravestones to scare off would-be vandals. But on the other 364 days of the year, Little isn’t worried about teenage pranksters with rolls of toilet paper. She’s concerned, instead, about middle-aged genealogists with digital cameras.
A few years back, an uninvited genealogist sauntered into the Perry Cemetery, copied down all of the information on the headstones, and posted the transcripts on www.rootsweb.com—a popular genealogy website. Months later, someone brought the transcripts to Little’s attention. She was shocked, at first, and then angry. She didn’t want the dead residents of Perry Cemetery spending the rest of eternity alongside the flotsam and jetsam, the rubbish, and the rabble of the Internet. By putting the information online, Little worried that the genealogy “do-gooders” were making the dead folks susceptible to grave robbers and identity thieves. She vowed to save her cemetery’s residents from digital purgatory. Thus, a new wrinkle was added to Little’s mission. In addition to identifying anonymous gravesites, henceforth, she would also fight to keep those identities off the Internet. Now whenever Little lectures groups of students, genealogists, or historians about cemetery preservation, she presents a list of the major threats facing Texas’ dead citizens, including livestock, encroaching civilization, all-terrain vehicles—and the Internet. hese days, most people setting out to learn more about the resting place of a long-lost ancestor use search engines, not copper probes. When it comes to popularity on the Internet, genealogy famously rivals pornography. Over the last decade, many genealogy websites have sprouted sections devoted to the documentation of old cemeteries. Tombstones can often help a genealogist retrace a family’s history. But collectively, tombstones are a vulnerable data set, open to the elements and prone to fading with each passing year. Since approximately 1997, volunteers with the Texas Tombstone Project—part of a national effort organized by www.rootsweb.com—have set out to transcribe every headstone, in every cemetery, in every county in Texas and post the information on a publicly accessible website. Recently, with the advent of cheap digital cameras, the mission has shifted toward photographic documentation. Someday in the not-so-distant future, every tombstone in Texas will likely exist in duplicate, one dirty version and one digital. Renee Smelley, who until recently volunteered as a photography manager for the Texas Tombstone Project, says that approximately 4,500 cemeteries have been surveyed so far in Texas and that the project is accelerating. She says that a few years ago, she would receive about 50 photographs a month. By last year, she was receiving 50 new tombstone portraits every week. According to Smelley, her volunteers occasionally run into ornery cemetery directors, like Little, who try to keep them at bay. But resistance, she says, is useless. The volunteers will get the information one way or the other. To wit: she recounts the story of a genealogist who, after being banned from a cemetery, sat outside the entrance and transcribed the tombstones from afar—through a pair of binoculars. “The information on tombstones is just like any other public record,” says Smelley. “Just like marriage records, divorce records, or land records.” Little, for one, emphasizes that in Texas death certificates are confidential for 25 years and birth certificates for 75 years. Little believes that posting photographs of tombstones on the Internet makes dead folks more vulnerable to identity theft. She points out that once you know a person’s date of birth and death, it’s easy to track down their social security number using the same free genealogical websites where the photographs of tombstones are often posted. Little worries that stealing a dead person’s identity is becoming as easy as, say, ordering a book from Amazon.com. Most of the evidence concerning identity theft based on tombstones is anecdotal, but it does happen. During a recent criminal trial in suburban Austin, for instance, a 22-year-old woman admitted in court to helping her husband fake his own death and create a new identity with major help from the graveyard. Three days before he was due in jail for a prior crime, Clayton Daniels and his wife dug up an old woman’s grave, put the corpse in his car, pushed the car over a cliff, and lit the wreck on fire. Initially, police misidentified the charred husk of the corpse and pronounced Clayton Daniels dead. In the meantime, the grave-robbing couple stole the identity of a deceased man named Alexander Gregg. Eventually, the plan fell apart. During the subsequent criminal trial, prosecutors introduced into evidence photographs of Gregg’s tombstone. Whether the Daniels found and exploited Gregg’s tombstone online or by strolling through cemeteries is unclear. But during the trial, prosecutors suggested that the wife dreamed up the entire plan while surfing the Internet on her computer at work. Such instances of identity theft are just a part of the problem, says Little. She also worries that digital photographs of tombstones will aid conventional grave robbers. Thanks to the popularity of sepulchral chic, all sorts of funereal items can fetch cash on the black market. Therefore, today’s grave robbers rarely bother with the graves. Instead, they sneak into cemeteries and haul off wrought-iron gates, iron crosses, funereal statues, urns, and benches—even ornately carved tombstones. Little worries that her fellow genealogists are inadvertently creating a giant treasure map for wannabe grave robbers. “That’s why I think we should draw the line at pictures and maps,” says Little. “You have a precious family heirloom, you’re putting it out in the middle of nowhere, and you’re telling people how to get to it and what it looks like.” No single law enforcement agency is solely responsible for investigating grave-robbing incidents, according to officials with the Texas Funeral Service Commission. Therefore, no statewide statistics exist documenting the frequency of grave-robbing crimes. Periodically, a national ring of grave robbers is busted, casting a brief spotlight on the shadowy nature of the underground market. In 1999, antique dealers in Louisiana and Los Angeles were busted with more than $1 million worth of statuary items stolen from the above-ground crypts of New Orleans. “I think antiquity led to infatuation,” a detective told The New York Times. “These sculptures were forbidden treasure.”
Gerron Hite, the cemetery coordinator for the Texas Historical Commission, says it’s unclear how much gets stolen from Texas’ 50,000 or so historic cemeteries each year, but he thinks it’s a significant amount. Again, most of the evidence is anecdotal. Hite says that occasionally he receives phone calls from police officers in other states who are looking to return stolen cemetery items. He has also caught people trying to sell cemetery contraband on eBay. “The theft thing is still going on,” says Hite. “Some of it’s organized. Once the object is picked up, it’s out of the state within a day.” But Hite says he is skeptical of the notion that today’s grave robbers sift through digital photographs of tombstones before choosing a target. “I’ve never been convinced that people just go on the Internet and start looking for objects to steal from cemeteries,” says Hite. “I think they’re driving around looking to see what’s easy to get into.” Even so, Hite says that he is judicious about what cemetery photos his organization posts on the web. Currently, the Texas Historical Commission is surveying cemeteries in numerous counties around the state. For each cemetery, the commission plans on posting a single photograph showing the entrance to the graveyard. “We do have other pictures that are available to people interested in doing research,” says Hite. “But we’re trying to be careful and not show off, you know, some amazing 8-foot-tall [funereal] angel.” t her home in northwest Houston, Little maintains her own stash of tombstone photographs. If someone from out of state wants to see the resting place of their ancestor in the Houston area, Little is willing to send them a snapshot, just not a digital copy. She keeps her entire collection of tombstone photographs neatly indexed in a little green box. Sometimes Little flips on her home computer and breezes through websites, looking to catch yet another cyber-genealogist trespassing on her territory. “These people have too much time on their hands,” says Little. “Of course, they could say the same thing about me.” Recently, she noted that one of her archrivals—a cemetery enthusiast who posts photos under the nickname Graveseeker—had taken a bunch of his work offline. Perhaps, Little thought, her constant needling was paying off. “We have the money at our cemetery to hire attorneys,” says Little. “But I’d rather save the money for mowing the grass and paying my fence insurance instead of fighting some idiot in court.” Rather than going the litigious route, Little continues to spread her argument for the cyber-privacy of the dead through education and outreach, talking to anyone who will listen. Photo clubs. Genealogical societies. Sons of the Republic of Texas. Daughters of the American Revolution. Boy scouts. “At what point does someone’s right to have a hobby interfere with someone else’s right to rest in peace?” says Little. “That’s the ultimate question. Do the dead have a right to privacy?” Felix Gillette is a writer that is based in Austin.