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DATELINE The Graveyard Shift BY FELIX GILLETTE 0 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 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, blondhaired, 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. corna 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 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 8, 2005