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Here’s a quick story about memorials gone astray.
All Cora Thornton wanted to do in her backyard on Blaine Street N.E., just up the hill from the Benning Library, was build a shed. She and her daughter had knocked down the old one, and were sweeping off the dirt above a concrete block. But it wasn’t just concrete: Three of the four corners were capped with gravestones. They read:
Margaret T. Dowd 1962 James P. Kennedy 1879-1952 John C. Knight, May 7 1934, and Mary Knight, February 12, 1955
“I was in a state of shock,” said Thornton, who is retired, with well-tended hair and mod glasses. She called the Historic Preservation Office, which was able to run the names through their database, and found that the people had been buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, right across the river. The mystery then became: How did they get to Blaine Street?
To try to figure that out, Thornton went to Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Staffers there, she says, told her to bring the gravestones over to the Cemetery—which would have been rather difficult. Instead, she called in the police, and asked them to at least probe for bodies around the gravestones, hoping that no one was buried (the mismanagement of Arlington National Cemetery was on her mind).
Finding nothing, Thornton went back to Mt. Olivet, and asked more questions. Had a previous occupant of the house worked at the cemetery, and stolen the gravestones to help build his shed? she wondered.
The cemetery, which is owned by Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, investigated. Rather than gravestone theft, they suspect that the memorials were replaced by ones with updated information, and a worker might have just taken the old ones home. Usually, they try to contact the families of the deceased, but often addresses aren’t updated, leaving nothing to do with the obsolete gravestones—and some might just quietly disappear.
“How they went from being disposed to where they were, that I don’t know,” says CCAW spokeswoman Lori Brown.
Ruth Trocolli, the City Archaeologist within the Office of Planning who helped Thornton find the gravestones’ home, is the go-to person for mysterious earthly remains. In response to Housing Complex’s inquiry, she wrote:
We do get occasional calls of this sort, when people find what they believe to be bones or artifacts in their yards, attics, or basements. However, this is the first time I’ve been contacted about a reused gravestone. Reusing discarded headstones is probably a creepy idea to some people, but others may not be bothered at all and only see the use value of the stone as a building material.
If anyone living or working in the District encounters cemetery objects such a grave markers, headstones, coffin parts, or funerary objects they should contact the DC Historic Preservation Office. We can help identify the name of the former cemetery. If human remains are found then District laws kick in and the police (MPD) and DC Medical Examiner (ME) need to be contacted. We work together with the ME and MPD when it is clear that the location of a former cemetery is involved. A forensic anthropologist, usually Dr. David Hunt of the National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, will examine human remains to establish the identity, or if that is not possible, at least the age, sex, number of individuals present, and other facts. Once it is established that the remains are not part of a crime scene they can be turned over to a cemetery for reburial.