Greetings again from the darkness. The story of the Eastern Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky is disheartening, yet somehow not overly surprising. It’s known as the most over-buried cemetery in America, and while the practice of over-burying – more than one body per plot – can be traced to greed, the shocking part here is the length of time it has evidently been business-as-usual at this particular cemetery.
The sign posted at the entrance states Eastern Cemetery was founded in 1848. In 1885 the “Louisville Journal” was reporting on mass pauper graves at the site, with 2-3 bodies per grave. This is Tommy Baker’s first feature length documentary and he provides us the statistics we need to fully comprehend the story. Eastern Cemetery is 29.6 acres, and the industry standard is 1000 bodies per acre. Records indicate 138,000 bodies can be traced to the cemetery, including the mass pauper graves from the mid-19th century. So yes, Eastern exceeds the standard by more than 100,000 bodies.
Mr. Baker opens the film with archival footage of a courtroom case involving the cemetery, but as we learn, despite ceasing operations in 1989, no one has been held accountable. Three chapters provide the film’s structure: History, Interrogation, and Friends of Eastern. History is important to establish the foundation of what occurred, but it’s the words of those interviewed who make this an emotional story to follow. The impact really strikes a chord when a family member reminds us that our society strives to bury the dead with dignity. She proclaims that at Eastern, a loved one’s final resting place is neither final nor restful.
We hear from the director of Cave Hill Veterans Cemetery, a graveyard that shares a property boundary/wall with Eastern, and has ten times the land. We hear of the ownership and involvement of the Methodist Church, as well as the affiliation with Greenwood Cemetery. Eastern housed Louisville’s first crematorium, and in 1989 when the re-using of plots became public knowledge, the cemetery ceased operations. It was at this point where things somehow got worse. The graveyard fell into disrepair due to neglect, and a sad situation turned shameful.
As is often the case, money provided an answer. A misappropriation of perpetual care trust funds meant there was no money for upkeep. Family members were angry and frustrated. After 25 years of failed court cases and legal wranglings, a non-profit organization called Friends of Eastern began to clean-up the site and re-store it to a proper condition. Frank Whitaker is our narrator through this sad saga with heart-breaking segments like “babyland”, and we come to understand how Eastern became the most over-buried cemetery in America … but we are discouraged to learn there are others.
Watch the trailer: