In 1843 the Fourth Street Methodist Church and the Brookes Street Methodist Church in Louisville Kentucky, each donated seven and a half acres of land to establish the Methodist Burial Grounds which, by 1854, had become the Eastern Cemetery Company. Over the years, the Eastern Cemetery acquired two ‘sister’ cemeteries; Greenwood (which had been a cemetery devoted to the internment of African Americans) and Shardein. From as early as the late 1800’s, the Eastern Cemetery regularly made use of graves for more than one (often several) burials with no regard for the owners or the occupants of the sites or their families. This practice continued until 1989 when a whistle-blower brought the practice to the attention of the Kentucky Attorney General. The subsequent investigation by FBI undercover agent Jim Caldwell resulted in a court case and a liability for the cemetery of millions of dollars. Unable to pay, the trustees walked away. The abandoned cemetery sat in disrepair until Andy Harpole brought together a volunteer group now known as the Friends of Eastern Cemetery to try and repair and restore some of the damage, if not the reputation.
This amazing story is ghoulish and gruesome and, at times, unbelievable. And yet, all these bizarre things are true and are revealed in Tommy Baker’s documentary by numerous talking heads (many from the Friends of Eastern Cemetery) but predominantly by four key figures who provide expert and fascinating perspectives.
Andy Harpole is the founder of the Friends of Eastern Cemetery and has spearheaded the task to restore the grounds. Phil DiBlasi was Professor of Archaeology at the University of Louisville (now retired) and was asked by the courts to conduct an audit on the graves. In a cemetery comprising 29.6 acres where the industry standard was to bury between a thousand and eleven hundred bodies per acre, DiBlasi discovered in excess of 138,000 burials. Bob Allen was a gravedigger at the site and continued working there right up until the end of operations in 1989. Beth Caldwell worked in administration and saw firsthand the impact of these shoddy business practices. Between the four of them (and the others) they (literally) dig up the dirt on what has been described as the most over-buried cemetery in America. The dire state of Eastern Cemetery is vividly brought home in a terrific aerial image of shabby disgrace of the Eastern Cemetery compared to the beautifully cared for Cave Hill Veteran’s Cemetery which shares a boundary and is separated by a long red brick wall.
In addition to the talking heads, factual, historical information is delivered by narrator Francis Whitaker. There’s a LOT of information here and many misdemeanours to be revealed. At times, the abundance of names and dates and goings on is so much that the story becomes overwhelming in its detail. What is never unclear, though, is that the scale of the disservice the cemetery did to its clients is staggering in its enormity.
As astounding as the story is, though, the quality of the documentary varies remarkably throughout. Much of the trial footage that provides an insight into the court case that considered the sixty charges laid against the trustees is rapidly degrading old videotape with difficult to read subtitles. The ‘talking head’ interviews provide compelling information but are shot in a haphazard and unengaging style with no consistency from interview to interview and little or no thought to the setting in which the individuals speak. Overall, the quality of the sound, lighting and camerawork is poor but, despite the doco being overlong and a bit repetitive, the information is undeniably fascinating and the final sequence that focuses on the Friends of Eastern Cemetery ensures that the film avoids becoming overtaken by the bleak stain its own dark and dismal history.
This can be a hard doco to watch, partly on a technical level but mostly due to its sad and at times horrifying content. But, in the end, that fact that it’s not from some warped screenwriter’s mind but from some very dark pages of history makes this well researched and informative tale hard not to watch.