Some days, the smell is unbearable.
Of course, if the bodies are pretty old—say, eighty years or more—then you hardly have to worry. Most caskets back then were just cheap lumber, wooden boxes, plywood—and the smell isn’t bad once you get in. It smells hardly different than the earth—the soil itself—that’s been settling around the casket for decades. The wood has decayed, is soft, brittle to the touch. And the body itself—nothing but bones.
But if it’s a recent grave, with those new-fangled caskets that are designed to preserve the body—although morticians tend to exaggerate this—the smell is almost unbearable. What morticians fail to explain to their unsuspecting new customers is that embalming only keeps a body fresh until the funeral is over. And while these new “protected” caskets do keep water out—which sounds like a good idea in theory—these caskets do not keep the body from decomposing. Not at all. In fact, if the casket is sealed as well as advertised, it only interferes with the natural dehydration that would otherwise occur. Fluids and gasses are released from the body as it begins to decompose, and the casket is likely to rust out or rot from the inside. The wealthier people tend to buy these protected caskets more, because they cost more and the poor can’t afford them. Apparently, the wealthy takes solace that their loved-one’s body in death won’t fester—no matter how badly they treated the person when she was still alive. It’s strange. Why anybody would care the way his dead relative’s body is stored is beyond me.
It makes much more sense to go into the older caskets than the newer ones. Even though the merchandise you find in the older caskets may not have cost as much when purchased, it might bring in more in the long run. Of course, the antique factor helps, especially for wedding rings. Plus, the quality is usually better—sterling silver, 24 karat gold, quality diamonds. And, as I’ve said, it’s much easier to get into these caskets, and the bodies are usually nothing but skeletons. Easy on the nose.
What many people may not know is that you don’t have to dig up the entire top of the casket to get into it. You really only need to dig a hole about 36 inches in diameter, about where the neck to navel would be on the body. Then you just take your spade or your HoeDag and break through the top of the casket. If the person was wearing jewelry when buried—which I generally already know from my research—the jewelry will almost always be between the neck and navel. Funeral Directors typically fold the hands of the deceased across her chest, which makes my job much easier.
I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. It’s a living. I know it’s a crime. But it’s a victimless crime. I don’t hold anybody up. I don’t threaten anybody. I don’t go into people’s homes. I don’t take anything from anybody who is still living, who had plans for their money or their possessions. I only take things that were buried six feet underground, things that were never going to see the light of day ever again, things that do no good being buried with the body—as if they can use those things once they’re gone. I mean, even if there is an afterlife—and I’m not saying there is—what good would a ring or necklace do those people once they’re dead? The jewelry doesn’t go to the afterlife with them. It just sets there on rotting flesh in the ground. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would bury something with them when they die. Myself, I have a notarized piece of paper that describes what I want to happen to my meager possessions when I die—whether it’s my van, my ring, any cash I have—it all needs to go to the Foundation for Children with Disabilities in my hometown of Laxton, Iowa. That way, it will do somebody some good.
Really, what I do is no different than someone using a metal detector on the beach. Does a person who finds a rare coin or ring with a metal detector feel guilty for finding something of value that was lost by another person? If so, very little. They are on their way to the pawn shop. Just like me.
I really hated cemeteries when I first started out doing this job. The mere thought of being in a cemetery at night, alone, the air filthy with ghosts of the past, terrified me half to death. It was the worst thing I could think of to do with myself. I guess that’s why I did it.
The only thing I’ve ever liked about this job is that I don’t have to deal with people much. Over the past 30 years, I’ve developed a pretty strong aversion to people. They always want to know things about you. They want to know what you “do.” They want to know about your family, your job, how you make a living. They make quick judgments of you, based on whether you are a janitor, a teacher, a banker, a CEO. Who cares? Nobody wants to know what you’re thinking, what you’re reading. I’m pretty convinced that no matter how much we think we know someone, we really don’t. We think we do, but we don’t. We all have secrets. Everyone.
Your mind wanders a lot when you are alone in a graveyard in the dead of the night. A lot goes through your mind—both good and bad. Mostly bad. Sometimes you think about that person—those people—from your past, those rare exceptions of people who made an impact in your life, who made life worth living. But you try to shake that from your mind, just as you shake the layers of dust, of soil, from your hands as you dig into the earth. Or you think in your mind what you might say to that one woman who looks nice, gentle, if she came over to you at the library.
What are you reading?
It’s a spiritual book. Trying to figure out who I am.
And what have you discovered?
Still working on it. How about you? Have you figured it out?
No. Just hope there’s more to life than…this.
I know, I know.
Do you believe in God?
Do you believe God punishes people for their sins?
Maybe—but I think most people punish themselves for their sins more than God ever could.
What about Heaven? Do you believe in Heaven?
I believe in death. I wish I could believe in Heaven.
So, you don’t believe in a soul?
Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I think of the soul the way that Emerson thought of it, the way the Preacher Jim Casey thought of it in Grapes of Wrath.
Wow, that’s interesting. You mean, like, that the universe is one huge, collective soul, and all living beings are one small piece of it?
In a nutshell.
So that would mean…?
I guess that all of us are connected in some way.
Yes. That’s a really nice way to look at things. Do you think Steinbeck was suggesting that Jim Casey was a modern day Messiah?
Well, the Preacher does have the same initials as Jesus Christ. Coincidentally, so do I.
It’s hard work, what I do—and not just physically. I scope. I research. I scale walls and fences. I dig. I buy equipment. A really good pickaxe costs over a hundred dollars. A good digging spade even more. I can’t use any power tools, of course, due to the noise—I have to use those old-fashioned augers, the ones that you have to crank by hand. It can all get expensive. But unlike businessmen, I can’t write off a thing, which kind of pisses me off. I mean, so-called “legitimate businessmen”—they can write off a trip to the tittie bar or golf course for a thousand dollars a night. And I can’t even write off a digging spade? Is that fair? They get a corporate credit card. They get the entire west wing of their house written off. Me? I get nothing. I pay for it all with hard-earned cash—my tools, my ladder, my van—which is also my house. I spend days, weeks, in libraries doing research, looking up old obituaries, sometimes on microfisch—which is hard to read without proper glasses, which I usually can’t afford. Hell, I could probably write off my eye glasses if I was a CEO or in Sales for a company selling stupid shit, like fine crystal, or golf clubs.
In some towns, I get kicked out of libraries. I guess I look homeless—like that’s a crime or something.
Sorry, Sir—you’ve been here for several hours today. You are making some people…uncomfortable
But most of the time, the librarians are nice, helpful. They help me find what I’m looking for—old obituaries.
Thanks. I’m the Genealogist of my family. We’ve got a family reunion coming up in a few weeks. I hope to have some fascinating new information to share with them.
I don’t spend all my time in the libraries researching obituaries. Sometimes I just read—I like classic literature the best. Or philosophy. I don’t necessarily like to talk to others in the library, but I like it that there are people around. I like it best when there are no less than five, but no more than 25 people in the library at the same time as me. I don’t go to large cities, never more than 35,000. I hate big cities—the traffic, the congestion, the people, the confusing intersections, the difficulty finding places, the one-way streets and dead-end roads. Even though sometimes you can be much more anonymous in big cities, I just don’t like it. I feel claustrophobic.
Sometimes I’ll read old articles in newspapers, very sad articles from the past. I try to avoid them, to fight the urge. But like an alcoholic who keeps a bottle in a cabinet—sometimes it beckons you at your most vulnerable. There are a lot of sad stories out there, making you wonder if there is any good at all in the world.
Two people, a woman and her son, were killed yesterday on Exit 267 off I-80 when their car, driven by the woman’s husband and child’s father, crashed into the metal partition…”
I didn’t set out to be what I am. I didn’t study “Grave Robbing” in college. In fact, I was an English Literature major. Well, come to think of it, I don’t know what else I planned to do with that degree. I once was a Technical Writer for a toy company—I wrote all the “how-to” instructions. So you can blame me if, at Christmas, you saw those three words that everyone loves to hate—“some assembly required”—and you felt the directions were shitty. Sorry. I did my best. But I really wasn’t all that enthused by that job—it didn’t give me any real sense of accomplishment. Forty hours a week, working for other people, getting yelled at or belittled by the boss, bored half to death. But it was a living. It helped me support a family early on.
It’s a lonely job. About ten years ago, I had a cat for a week—or, I should say, the cat had me. She was asleep under the hood of my van. I heard something when I cranked it up, like a high-pitched scream in a horror movie. The engine of the van was so loud I could hardly hear it. I quickly turned off the engine, got out, opened the hood of the van, and there she was. A tough looking cat, orange and white, dirty as hell. Matted hair. One eye seemed infected. She was pitiful. But resilient as hell.
I took her in for a while. Fed her, kept her warm. But the more I enjoyed her being around, the worse I felt. I didn’t want to think the way I did, but I couldn’t help it—I was going to outlive that cat. And the closer I got to her, the harder it would be for me when she died, which we all inevitably do. Of course, it was possible that I would die first, but that would even be worse—the poor thing would have been trapped in my van to die. So I put up a flyer at the library in Woodward, Oklahoma where I found her, and within a week she had a good home. It was nice, too, that I got to meet the people who were taking her in. I got to see the reaction of the little boy when he first set eyes on the cat. He’d never had an animal before, and the cat went right to him, purring as the boy hugged her. I tried not to think about how badly the boy would feel when his cat died on him someday. It’s a shame that in nearly every relationship, one has to outlast the other—inevitably forcing the living one to muddle through life thereafter in a dazed purgatory.
School Gymnasium Packed as Student’s Friends Pay Last Respects to Classmate…
Sometimes I think about the person I’m digging up. Sometimes, I read more about her life than I should. It’s better if I don’t do that, if the person is somewhat anonymous. I mean, yes, you have to read the obituary, and maybe even find out a little more about her than what a standard obit tells you. But it’s best not to learn too much about the person, about her family, about her loved ones—those she left behind, the ones who truly suffer. But sometimes it’s nice to make up stories about the person in the casket while you’re digging. You imagine the person doing mundane things, like cooking in the kitchen with her husband, or washing grass stains out of her child’s baseball pants. It helps pass the time being alone at night in a graveyard, death all around. Sometimes you think of something funny, like I once thought if I ever finally got caught in the act and the judge asked me if I liked spending so much time in graveyards, I would reply, “What? Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that.” And then everyone would laugh.
Recently I thought I had the perfect find in a town near Reno, one that would set me up for a while, two years or more. The lady was buried in 1959, was married for 51 years, and the obit said she was buried with her wedding ring, which had been given to her by her grandma, whose husband—an immigrant from Italy—had it made by a famous jeweler there. This would be worth thousands, possibly $10,000 or more. And Reno has a lot of pawn shops, which means it’s easy to haggle. All you have to say is another place already offered more, and they’ll usually tack on another 10% to their offer.
I scoped out the cemetery for days and made my plan—point of entrance, time of night, all that. My arms and shoulders aren’t as good as they used to be, making the job more and more difficult to perform. First, you have to carry your tool bag up the ladder—which weighs close to 40 pounds— and throw it over to the other side. Then you have to straddle the fence or wall—which I use an old folded up towel between my thighs—and pull the ladder up and over so you can use it to get out as well. Then, of course, you have to do a lot of digging. It’s getting harder the older I’m getting.
I am very careful not to deface the property—at least, to the naked eye. Out of respect for those still living, those who may visit, I have a special shovel to skim off the top of the earth, preserving the grass in a layer of topsoil—like sod—and carefully set it aside. I lay out a polyethylene tarp near the hole I’m digging, putting all the dirt onto it to avoid a mess. Once I get what I’m there for, I carefully shovel all the dirt back in from my tarp before putting the sod back on top, packing it all down as tightly as possible. By the time I leave, I’d bet you couldn’t even tell what had happened there. I’m like a phantom in the night, leaving no trace. It’s very important to me that this gets done this way. If I wasn’t able to do it this way, I wouldn’t do it at all.
Escaped Inmate Found at Cemetery Where Relatives Buried, Returned to Prison…
It was a sultry night in Nevada, but there was dew on the grass—which helped because I could get my hands wet from the dew and wipe my face, my forehead, my neck—keeping me cool. The moon was nearly full, which put a faint light over all the headstones and trees, causing some daunting shadows.
As you dig, you sometimes can’t help but look around, where headstones—and, thus, bodies—flow as far as the eye can see. You can’t help but think about the bodies, even so much as feeling a little sad. I’m not so sad for the dead as I am for the living, for those they left behind. Don’t get me wrong—many of the bodies surely belonged to some real fuck-ups: wife beaters, child molesters, cheaters, conmen. Good riddance to them. But most people, I believe, have at least some good in them. Some more than others, for sure. And when those good people die—especially when they die too young—I feel really bad for the living who were left behind; those people who could hardly stand it without them, who desperately try to forget them in an effort to end the pain, but then feel guilty for trying to forget them. It’s an endless cycle for the living.
I was very hopeful that this grave near Reno would fund me for years, possibly allow me to retire altogether as I’ve learned how to live quite frugally ever since I stopped drinking some years back. But as soon as I saw the ring, I knew I’d been had.
It was nice, don’t get me wrong. But it was no one-of-a-kind, Italian original. Obviously, this family just wanted to represent themselves with superiority when this woman died, when the obit was written. Either that, or the Italian immigrant who originally bought the ring intentionally made false claims to his bride-to-be to make himself look better. Either way, it screwed me over. But what are you going to do? It was still possibly worth as much as $1000, but that’s only a fraction of what I hoping it could bring.
Jamie Cloninger Sentenced to Two Years for Vehicular Manslaughter…
The very first Pawn shop I visited, the guy offered $650. I told him I had another place already offer $700 and it was easily worth more. He said he’d give me $700 as well, but not a penny more. I really didn’t want to go all over Reno for the possibility of getting just another $50 or so, so I sold it.
While I looked around in his store, he immediately got on the phone.
“Joel, it’s Max. I think I’ve got something just like you’re looking for. It’s over 100 years old. I’m sure Heather will love it. Well, it’s not quite in your price range, but close. Why don’t you bring her down and take a look.”
I went back to the Pawner. “Is someone going to buy that ring?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He looked me up and down. “Why?”
“Oh, no reason. But can I…well, I’d like to stick around and see if they like it. Is that all right?”
About thirty minutes later, Joel and Heather came in. Max showed the ring to Heather, who literally squealed.
“Oh my God!” she yelled. “It’s just right. Is it, like, 100 years old?”
“And then some,” Max said. He cocked his head towards me. “There’s the guy that brought it in. How old is it exactly?”
I cleared my throat. “It was bought by my Great-Grandpa in Italy in 1866 for my Great-Grandma. When my Great-Grandma died, it was given to my mom—who wore it until last year when she died. I hate to get rid of it, but I don’t really get attached to things. My mom kept a journal her whole life, and that’s worth more to me than any piece of jewelry.”
“It’s from Italy?” Heather asked, her eyes glowing. She looked back to Max. “How much?”
“Oh, I know I can get $1200 for it. But I’ll…”
He sighed, as though it pained him to do this. “I’ll sell it to you for $1000. But I need it within 48 hours.”
Joel and Heather looked at each other.
“Can you give until Friday?” Joel asked.
Max shook his head. “Sorry.”
Heather looked to Joel, her eyes pleading. They were young, maybe 19 or 20. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but they both looked as though life had already dealt them a tough hand, as though they’d suffered more than the average person—and by a long shot. Then Heather turned her body sideways, and I saw the beginnings of a rounding belly, protruding straight out through her tight camisole top.
“Come on, Max,” I pleaded, as if I’d known him for years. “You’ve only had the ring for 30 minutes. Can’t you just sell it at cost? Or knock it down a little?”
Max gave me a look.
“You stay out of this. I’m doing business here. I’ve got to make a living too. I’m behind in my own bills.”
“Look,” Joel said. “I’ve got $500 right now. I can…I can probably get the other $500 by Friday. Will you do that, Max? You know how much this means to Heather.”
Max sighed. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll hold your $500 until Friday. If you get me rest of it—every penny—by noon on Friday, you can leave with it. But if you don’t have every penny by noon on Friday, then I keep your money, and the ring.”
Max then shook his head, sighing. “I can’t believe I’m willing to do this for you, not after the way you’ve screwed me in the past.”
“I know,” Joel said. “I know—I’m sorry. But I did pay you, eventually I did.”
“OK,” Max said, a look of disgust in his chubby, bearded face. “Is that a deal?”
Joel looked to Heather, nervous as hell, his eyes like a puppy.
Suddenly, unconsciously, I found myself walking towards the counter, to Max. Then I looked to Joel.
“So, you two planning to get married?” I asked him.
Joel smiled, seemingly forgetting the precarious position he was in at that moment. “Yes Sir,” he said excitedly. “She’s my girl.”
I looked to Heather, who wiped her stringy, unkempt hair out of her eyes, smiling as well. She had a small piercing on her nose, another one on her lower lip. Her teeth were slightly crooked, somewhat decayed. She grabbed his arm, holding on tight, placing her cheek against his shoulder. I noticed a resemblance between her and Max, possibly siblings.
I pulled the $700 wad out of my pocket. There were two $100 bills, two $50 bills, and the rest $20’s. I counted out $500.
“You say you’ve got $500 right now?” I asked Joel.
His eyes widened, unsure what was transpiring. He nodded slowly.
“Let’s see it,” I said.
He looked to Heather, his eyes narrowing. He reached in his pocket, pulling out money, opening his hand to show me.
“Put it on the counter,” I said.
He put it down, and I put mine next to his.
“Count it up, Max.”
Max looked at me suspiciously.
“Well, it’s not counterfeit, I can guarantee you,” I said. “It’s the same money you gave me.”
Heather and Joel both started to protest, but I waved them off.
“Consider it a wedding gift,” I said.
Max counted up the money.
“You’re five dollars short,” he said, somewhat smugly. But maybe he had his reasons.
I pulled out another twenty, setting it on the counter. Max took the twenty and found a ten and five from Joel’s stash, handing them back to me.
Joel was ambivalent—thankful, but unsure.
“Mister, we just can’t take your money like this. You…give me your address. I’ll repay you, I promise,” he said. I looked to Heather, who had tears in her eyes.
“Max, give Joel the damn ring already,” I said.
“What’s your address?” Joel asked again.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“No,” Heather said. “We insist. We have to give you something. Look,” she said, putting both fingers up to her ears. “These earrings, they’re worth something. Joel got them for my birthday, they cost $60. Max, these are only two months old. How much for them.”
“I don’t need any God damn earrings that people can get at Kohl’s,” Max said.
“Max, don’t be an ass hole. Come on…”
“Look,” I said, putting my hands up in the air. Max still had the ring in his hand. I held out my hand, and Max handed me the ring.
“Come over here with me,” I told them both.
We walked away from Max into a corner. I put my hands on their shoulders, looking back and forth between them.
“Listen, you two. I’m just an aging man, all alone, and I don’t have much time left on this earth.”
“What’s wrong?” Heather asked.
“I’ve got cancer,” I lied. “And the only reason I sold my great-grandma’s ring was because I had no one to give it to, no kids—no family of any kind. And I wanted that ring to go to a nice couple, a couple who are starting out their lives together, a couple who has nothing but each other. I never imagined I would have the chance to see how this ring might bring such joy to other people. I mean, that ring represents nearly 90 years of marriage—my great-grandma for 48 years, and my mom for 40. I don’t want this ring to go to just anybody. I want you two—no, I need you two—to just accept this ring and be happy about it. Do you like it, Heather?”
“I…love it,” she said, her eyes welling.
“Then please—help a dying man out and just accept this gift. Please. It would mean more to me than you could ever know.”
I held the ring out in front of Joel, who I forced to take it.
“Thank you so much,” Joel said, his eyes misty as well. He hugged me. Then Heather hugged us both simultaneously. They were both crying.
“Alright, then,” I said. “Good luck to both of you.”
I turned to leave.
“Wait,” Joel said.
I turned back.
He bent down on one knee in front of Heather, putting out his hand in front of her. Her tears got stronger as she gave him her right hand. He slipped the ring onto her finger.
“I love you more than anything in the world, Heather,” he said. “Will you make me the happiest man ever and be my wife?”
She jumped up and down, literally. “Yes, yes, yes!” she yelled.
Almost brought a tear to my eye.
We hugged again. They thanked me profusely. They promised they would never let that ring go, that it would stay in their family forever.
“You ever been married?” Heather asked.
I shook my head. “No,” I said, offering a slight smile. “I’m too damn tough to fall in love.”
I got on the road immediately. I had a new cemetery to visit, one I didn’t have to research; one I didn’t have to wait until night to enter; one for which I didn’t have to scale the walls; one I wouldn’t need any tools.
I pulled into the cemetery two days after leaving Reno, nearly driving straight through, having eaten nothing but what I could get from gas stations along the way.
I pulled into the Laxton, Iowa cemetery in the early afternoon, the sun hot, a steady breeze hitting my sweaty body as I got out of my van. I walked to two headstones, headstones that hadn’t been visited in ten years or more. Which was a shame.
The names on the headstones immediately caused my throat to swell up. Swallowing became difficult as I was holding back tears.
Jennifer Cloninger, Wife and Mother
Jeremiah Cloninger, Loving Son
I lay on my back between their headstones, looking up to the sky, thinking of Jenn and Jeremiah, of Joel and Heather and their unborn child, their future children. I replayed our conversation over and over again, from the first moment I spoke with them to the last word I said.
And as I looked to the sky, the white clouds racing high above me, the only movement around me the swaying leaves of the tress, I closed my eyes tightly, wishing desperately that everything I had told them was true.
Every last word.