Chris Naughton was walking through Columbus’ East Porterdale Cemetery off 10th Avenue when he stumbled onto a skull and bones.
Not literally, except that literally he stumbled by stumping his toe against a stone grave border, which prompted him to look down. Then his gaze was drawn to a sinkhole at the head of a 1956 grave marked with a flat, rectangular concrete slab.
With the afternoon sunlight slanting through the sinkhole, he could see the skeletal remains.
“When I looked, I had to look twice to make sure I had seen what I had seen,” said Naughton, 36, of Phenix City, who said he has been visiting East Porterdale since his friend Joseph Osborne was buried there in August.
Naughton has added a sinkhole revealing human remains to his list of complaints about the city paupers’ graveyard. His other issues include poor drainage that after heavy weekend rains left a pool of standing water on the northeast end, markers so damaged or deteriorated visitors can’t find names, broken stone monuments and what he sees overall as a trashy appearance.
“It should look like a cemetery instead of a dump,” said Naughton, who has planted turf over the grave of his friend, who was born Oct. 21, 1975, and died Aug. 1.
The slab on the grave with the sinkhole identifies it as that of Carrie Mae McGhee, who was born Oct. 17, 1917, and died April 30, 1956.
When he saw the skull and bones, Naughton was on his way to the grave of Hercules Moore, who was born Dec. 16, 1919, and died Nov. 28, 1950. An infantryman who served in World War II and Korea, Moore has a standard veteran’s headstone that broke and toppled. Naughton wanted to prop it back up.
Now Naughton believes the city is neglecting the cemetery set aside for the poor who have no estate nor any family to pay for funerals, plots and headstones.
The city responds
Deborah Abraham, the city’s cemetery division manager, said she does as well as she can working with limited resources under challenging circumstances, especially in East Porterdale.
“It’s where we bury the indigent, and we just kind of do the best we can with it,” she said.
The graveyard has expanded east into a span of red clay that is not ideal for drainage or landscaping. “Back there where we’re burying them now is not a good location, and we are trying to find somewhere else to start burying them,” Abraham said.
Because laborers in the summer are busy cutting grass and weeds, they wait until winter to work on plugging sinkholes and raising slabs, she said.
The division is responsible for four city cemeteries: Linwood, Riverdale, Porterdale and East Porterdale, she said. It has five employees, including Abraham and a corrections officer, and otherwise relies on prison inmates as its labor force.
The officer gets four inmates, and that crew usually works in Linwood, Columbus’ oldest and most historic cemetery.
Abraham and her other three workers have been trained to manage six inmates maintaining the other three cemeteries, she said. They supervise inmates who are about to be released from prison and present little security risk.
Naughton, the visitor who saw the skull and bones, also has complained that maintenance crews were filling sinkholes with sand, which he felt too easily condensed and collapsed when wet.
Abraham said workers do use sand, as well as other dirt.
“We try to use topsoil and sand, but it’s just a matter of what we can get from heavy equipment to bring out to us,” she said.
She thought the sinkhole Naughton noticed had been filled. “We walked the whole cemetery, and any holes that were out there, we filled in,” she said.
Naughton said that when he called Abraham last week to complain about East Porterdale’s condition, he was surprised to learn that bodies were being buried 4-feet deep without a vault and without being embalmed.
Abraham said she also was surprised when she started in cemetery maintenance 11 years ago to learn that bodies are not required to be buried 6 feet down, though most people still consider that the standard.
“All graves are 4-foot, and that’s in any cemetery,” she said.
The law does not require embalming or a vault.
The latter is one reason some graves are difficult to maintain in poor soil, she said.
“When you bury somebody that’s indigent, they’re not buried in a vault. It’s just a casket, so it’s just going to keep sinking, and we just have to keep filling it in, and sometimes when it rains, it’s just going to go a little bit deeper,” she said.
Crews on the rear side of East Porterdale are clearing ground for more graves.
“Right now they’re pushing everything back and cleaning it out so that we’ll have more room back there until we can find somewhere else,” Abraham said.
The price the city currently pays for a pauper’s burial is $350, which must be reimbursed to the funeral home, she said.
Linwood has its own foundation that helps maintain and restore that cemetery’s markers, fencing and grounds. Abraham said that anyone who, like Naughton, is concerned about the condition of the other graveyards should know another foundation has been formed for those.
“We’ve got one that has been started; it’s the Riverdale-Porterdale Foundation,” she said. “It’s been together about two years, but it’s just slowly getting off the ground.”
She’ll tell Naughton the next time that foundation holds a meeting, she said. “We need people to get more involved.”