It is something Poe would write.
Mary Burchill walks the grounds of Oak Hill Cemetery — stabbing the soil with her steel rod.
In these rolling hills — where notables ranging from legendary Kansas University basketball coach Phog Allen to Kansas’ first U.S. Senator, James Lane, lie — there is a body of a man named Amos Dresser. A notable abolitionist he was, who came to Lawrence to die in 1904. Burchill has Dresser blood in her, and a curiosity about a possible forefather.
So, she stabs, stabs, stabs the ground.
Geez, he’s supposed to be here. At least that’s what the folks down at the cemetery office said.
But Burchill knows with this business of bodies, it is not always so simple. Sometimes the old headstones sink, topple or become covered. So, she stabs with her rod to see if a tombstone is hidden just beneath the soil.
Burchill knows of such somber graveyard details. Burchill is a grave hunter.
Well, as a leader of the Douglas County Genealogical Society, she is really more of a genealogist.
But come on, grave hunter sounds way cooler.
• • •
Grave hunters of all stripes just got a Memorial Day present from the city of Lawrence. On Friday, the city added a new feature to its website — lawrenceks.org — that allows people to type in the name of anyone who they believe is buried in one of the three cemeteries operated by the city.
Hit a search button, and the computer will churn out the cemetery — either Oak Hill, Memorial Park or Maple Grove — the date of burial, and the section number and lot number of the grave.
Online maps of the three cemeteries are available to get users the rest of the way there. The new tool won’t only be helpful to genealogists. Local florists, who often get asked to make deliveries to a tombstone, also are excited about the addition.
“I’ve spent three hours looking for a grave,” said Carey Engle, an owner of Englewood Florists, 1101 Mass. “In the rain. It is usually raining.”
More people than you may think search for graves throughout the year. Mitch Young, who supervises the maintenance of the cemeteries for Lawrence Parks and Recreation, said his staff receives about 20 phone calls and 10 e-mails or letters each week asking about grave locations. And the numbers have been increasing over the years.
“It used to be 30, 40 years ago everybody knew where all their loved ones were buried,” Young said. “But now, people have less time. Grandkids don’t have time to go to the cemetery to learn all that. So, there’s a lot more research that goes on as time goes by.”
• • •
Burchill knows all about research. Walking the grounds of a graveyard is actually the fun part. Reading rolls of microfilm of old newspapers, searching through stacks of marriage certificates, mining data from military records can be the tough part.
“It can get tedious,” said Burchill, who has been conducting genealogy work on her family for about 25 years.
But then, like the patient fisherman, she hooks one every once in a while.
“You want to be careful, if you ever start this,” Burchill said. “It is addictive. It is fascinating.”
Burchill started out by trying to gain entry into the Daughters of the American Revolution, which requires you to show you had an ancestor who fought in the war. Burchill accomplished that, and then traced her family’s roots all the way back to 1632. She’s still filling in details.
“My mother’s side came over during the French Revolution. I’m sure there is a really good story there. I just haven’t found it yet,” Burchill said. “My aunt insists that we’re royalty. But of course everybody insists that they’re royalty.”
For the time being, though, some people actually can prove it. Burchill isn’t sure that always will be the case. Much of a genealogist’s treasure is found in letters ancestors wrote or old-time newspaper articles announcing Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So had moved to the community. In other words, communication of a different age.
“What is somebody like me going to be reading 50 years from now?” Burchill asked. “E-mails? I don’t think so. People delete those. I don’t know how you are going to trace a person’s progress through life with e-mails and Facebook.”
• • •
But that is a worry for another day.
Here at Oak Hill, there is a search to finish. The ground is now perforated. The rod has come up empty. Sometimes the graves win. Burchill understands that. She begins to walk back to her car, and crosses the cemetery road.
“And then I run into,” she says, “there was Amos Dresser’s tombstone. I was just on the wrong side of the road. It was like ‘Eureka, I’ve found it.’”
She had found Amos Dresser. But had she found kin? Oh, that will take lots of paperwork. Microfiche and minutia await. Maybe.
“Oh, all us Dressers are related somehow,” Burchill said. “I’m claiming him, anyway.”