Make the Ground Talk

Back At It by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

We spent a couple of hours at East End this morning. The interminable rain had kept us away for several weeks. Erin had been out more recently than I. I have been wrapped up in deadlines and nursing an aching back—I must learn a new technique for root-wrenching and stump-pulling.

The sun was brilliant today and we were alone, for the most part. A car leaving neighboring Evergreen Cemetery on the access road passed by slowly as we walked in the section of East End that straddles the Richmond–Henrico County border. The driver, a man or woman sunk deep into the seat—perhaps just a really short person—drove on without looking.

We visited today to photograph a headstone for a Richmond couple we met last week, at our exhibition. They share a family name with the deceased. They have people buried at Evergreen, but they knew nothing of this particular (possible) relation interred at East End. We offered to send them the photo. Erin promised to do some research, online and at the Library of Virginia.

I got stung by a yellow jacket through my pants as Erin unearthed a grave stone. She found others and temporary markers, too. A number of these were for children. We know that they died a long time ago—six-year-old Vanessa Christian passed away in 1964, a few months before I was born—but we always feel a wave of sadness when we find them. Erin may write more about this.

I have never been able to photograph the depressions that corrugate some sections of the cemetery, graves marked and unmarked, to my satisfaction. I tried again today. They remind me of the graves at Old Orchard Cemetery at Camp Peary, the first place I truly noticed these casket-shaped troughs. We will probably never learn who is buried there.

The shapes in the ground force me to visualize a coffin, which sends my thoughts toward funerals, real and imagined. As I child, frightened of anything having to do with death, I would have been pants-wetting terrified of these dips in the earth. Now, I tread lightly around them, respectfully, but also curiously. The souls at rest under my feet have stories.

Among the Living … At the Cemetery by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Uncleared burial plots at East End Cemetery, Henrico County, Virginia, January 2015, 2015

Uncleared burial plots at East End Cemetery, Henrico County, Virginia, January 2015, 2015

A dark gray Ford SUV slow-rolled up Evergreen Road, softly crunching gravel. Odd, and little scary. Not many folks travel Evergreen. It’s a dirt road that leads to nothing but cemeteries.

Hunters scouting the area for a little late afternoon poaching, I figured, or cops.

I dropped the vine I was tugging on, and looked toward the front passenger-side window, which was sliding down. I got up and walked toward the truck. Cautiously, I peeked into the window. A man, big and brown, wearing green, leaned toward me. “Mr. Palmer?” he asked.

Captain Milt Robinson told me on the phone that he might drop by on a cemetery cleanup day, and he did. Robinson oversees Henrico County and Richmond for Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

I gathered at his truck with a couple of other volunteers. Robinson told us he wanted to see the area for himself. “We don’t want to go behind Henrico Police and investigate their investigation,” he said. There's interagency cooperation and professional etiquette to worry about. And then, of course, there's general principle: Cops stick together. I get it. My grandfather was a cop, proud of it. He did 20 years in the NYPD, 1936 to 1956, much of it walking a beat in Harlem.

Robinson said he’d consider increasing patrols out here for the next hunting season. Then he excused himself to explore. We all went back to digging, sawing, and pulling.

As the sun started to set, I schlepped our gardening—degardening, in this case—tools back to coordinator John Shuck’s pickup. I put my cameras in our car, and then I walked to Robinson’s truck. He had parked between us—we were working near the main road—and the gate to Evergreen Cemetery. I assumed he’d be nestled in his seat, typing notes into the laptop mounted in the cab. But he wasn’t, so I walked into the woods, or what looked like woods until I took three steps off the road. Every few feet, there were headstones. This was precisely the area where we'd seen the hunters just weeks before.

I couldn't track him down, so we left. I called him later that evening. Robinson told me he'd been looking around, as promised. He said he’d stopped at Maggie Walker’s grave before leaving.