This one goes back to October of 2017. I was invited to come hang out at Spring Hill Cemetery. Interesting thing: I began posting on social media pictures of me wandering around the cemetery before I published the first article, which concerned some people, who took it to mean I was depressed.
I don’t recall being particularly down during that month. It was a good experience. I learned a lot about Charleston and even got a chance to do a little acting.
Here is one of the installments, mostly about dowsing rods.
Because it’s the Halloween season, people have asked whether I’ve seen anything strange at Spring Hill Cemetery Park — if I’ve seen a ghost.
A couple of readers claimed they had. One sent me pictures showing streaks of light, but I haven’t seen anything like that — just plenty of birds and a few squirrels.
In all honesty, I should add that I haven’t actually been sleeping in the cemetery, which has less to do with a fear of the living dead than a lousy track record with camping. The last time I slept outdoors in a tent, a couple of deer tried to invite themselves in.
No ghosts, no ghouls, no signs of evil cultists gathering to bring about the end of the world.
So far, the oddest thing I’ve seen at Spring Hill was cemetery Superintendent Perry Cox’s dowsing rods.
I’d heard of dowsing rods for years. The practice goes back centuries.
Old farmers used to use wooden rods, or even just branches snapped off trees, to locate underground water and dig wells.
Others have used dowsing to hunt for treasure, minerals and metals.
According to the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the authorities in the south of France during the 1600s used dowsing to track heretics and criminals.
Mistakes may have been made. The Inquisition forbade the use of the method for the purposes of justice in 1701.
Beyond that, dowsing was considered folkcraft, a kind of harmless homespun magic generally believed to draw on power from benign and helpful sources.
Of course, no one seemed to know where the power to do this came from, but they said it probably wasn’t the devil. Probably.
In dowsing, the practitioner holds a Y-shaped stick or a pair of wires in from of him or her with both hands, and then he or she walks until the rods move or twitch, which is supposed to indicate water.
Perry’s metal rods moved inward to form an X.
Perry said he can use his dowsing rods to locate wells, follow water lines, but, more interestingly, he can locate graves, determine their size and even whether the body interred belonged to a woman or a man.
Science says it’s all hokum. At best, the people who use dowsing rods are moving them unconsciously through ideomotor movements — basically moving them without knowing they’re moving them.
It’s just dumb luck if they’re right.
At worst, dowsing is seen as some kind of scam or parlor trick.
Perry is aware of all of that, but he said he’s been using dowsing rods for years.
“I put handles on mine for the unbelievers,” he told me, smiling broadly.
Perry gave me a demonstration, took me into the cemetery and we walked around a grave. The rods crossed and he said this was a corner and then another. We walked toward a headstone, and the rods crossed.
“This was a male,” he said.
The next grave belonged to a woman.
“I can feel it flow through me,” Perry said. “A force.”
Perry had me give it a try. I didn’t feel anything like a force, but the rods moved. They seemed to move on their own just as I crossed a line that might have been the boundary between the earth and a buried casket.
I watched my hands, not where I was going. I didn’t think my hands or arms moved, but who’s to say?
Accuracy with any of this is difficult to verify, especially in a graveyard. To dig deeper than what it takes to pull some weeds, you need a court order.
Perry said that had happened, of course. Graves have been exhumed.
From time to time, old police cases are reopened, or there is some legal question that can only be answered by exhuming a body. It is not often done. Disturbing a body that’s been laid to rest is serious business, and it generally requires a team of gravediggers, lawyers, police officers and an archeologist.
Reopening a coffin can be a disturbing sight, Perry said. Human remains don’t necessarily act the way they do on television and film. They can be less substantial.
“The clothes will fade away,” Perry told me. “The people will look OK but will be like carbon dust if you touch them.”
When a grave is opened, they don’t always remove the entire body. Sometimes, they just take a portion for DNA testing.
“We only get what is needed and nothing more,” he said. “We put it all back the way we found it.”
Or as close as they can.
Nothing lasts forever, but a lot can be done to make it last a long time. What happens beneath the ground is beyond anyone’s control, but some things can be done to protect the markers above ground.
How long a particular gravestone or monument lasts has to do with a lot of factors. Some of them seemed like the luck of the draw.
Near the top of a hill, Perry pointed out an old and frayed obelisk. It was about 100 years old.
“You can tell how the weather comes in just by looking at the stonework up here,” he said.
The damage, he said, was more severe facing the west.
“That’s where we get most of our wind.”
They can’t fight the wind and the rain, but something can be done about what comes with it.
Kaaren Ford and groundskeeper Chris Feltner led me up a hill, past the old circle to near where President Ulysses S. Grant’s aunt was buried. We carried with us a jug of D/2 cleaner with a sprayer and were going to clean a couple of monuments.
D/2 is a non-hazardous, biodegradable cleaning solution used to freshen up old monuments.
“Perry likes it because it’s not bad for the grass,” Chris said.
It’s also better than harsher cleaning materials, including bleach, which may damage stones or cause further staining.
Bleach, for example, also kills grass, weeds, flowers and puts weird spots on your clothes that are hard to explain to co-workers.
Just as wind and rain can cause erosion, erasing the words etched into the stone, the monument surfaces can become corrupted. Mold, bacteria or pollutants in the air blacken them or fill in the grooves of the carved word.
“It used to be a lot worse back when this was really the chemical valley,” Perry told me. “It’s not so bad now.”
Besides particles in the air, moss and lichen will take root in even the shallow pits of the stone, feeding on it as it becomes slowly disfigured.
The D/2 kills the moss and lichen while clearing the corruption.
“It works best where you’ve got full sunlight,” Perry said.
While it takes decades for the inscriptions to become obscured by the environment, it only takes weeks or months to revitalize them.
The white statue of an angel, not far from the park’s office, is among the successes at Spring Hill Cemetery Park.
“It used to be black,” Kaaren said. “Chris did that one. It took two separate cleanings.”
The statue looks nearly new, though it’s decades old.
Cleaning the stone can be tricky. It involves spraying the surfaces with the D/2 and scrubbing with a brush. But not all stones are equal. Marble, used frequently, erodes much faster than granite or slate.
“You have to be more gentle with marble,” Chris explained.
Not that it helps much. Grit comes up from the marble just by rubbing a finger over it.
We worked on one granite headstone and then a couple of pieces of marble. With a rinse of water, black filth streamed down the sides and dripped into the grass. I could see somewhat of a change with a few of the pieces.
“Give it a week or two,” Chris said.
I told them I’d come back to see.
As the gravestones erode, their messages can be preserved — sometimes, and with great care.
Before photographs, people used to rub charcoal or some kind of carbon power on butcher paper to lift an image from a gravestone — in grade school, some of us did the same thing, using a pencil lead to reveal secret messages sent by friends or to copy pictures on the back of certain books.
Unfortunately, this method of rubbing can damage some types of stone and worsen the erosion. Laws have sprung up around the country, mostly in states with Colonial-era graveyards, banning the process.
Cemetery preservation societies in other states often discourage traditional rubbings and suggest alternates, like pressing with aluminum foil or working with specially manufactured carbon paper.
“They say you get the best rubbings if you use a $100 bill,” Perry said.
I said the best I could do was a buck. I was doing good to have a dollar on my person that wasn’t in quarters and nickels.
Chris, Kaaren and I laid a broad sheet of some special blue paper on one of the sides of the obelisk of Rachel Grant Tompkins. The writing on her monument was fading away.
Pressing the dollar bill against the flattened paper, I rubbed circles, trying to transfer some of the image, but had only modest success. I got her name, carved in bold, but none of the fine print, which might have said more about who she’d been.
Probably someone else had gotten more before me. I hoped so.