John Baskin
John Baskin

Fellowship Title:

New Burlington, Ohio: When a Town Dies
The High and Waiting Ground – Part I & II

John Baskin
April 9, 1973

Fellowship Year

March 30, 1973

The High And Waiting Ground – Part I


Frank Robinson’s house is on one hill, the graveyard is on another, although half a mile away. To get to his work he walks, but everyone knows him and most of the time he is soon picked up. When a familiar automobile passes him by, as it occasionally does, he forgives, although the driver is likely to feel he has behaved irrationally, on some vague and quarrelsome instinct, and he is left with a tenuous cusp of a guilt as the gravedigger shrinks in the rear glass. One of the villagers, far into some solemn moment, will tell of this as if ashamed and say: “I’ve done that.” The gravedigger, living alone, returns silence for silence. The moment is too complicated, somehow past reckoning.

Photo by Dan Patterson
Photo by Dan Patterson

“There is something to a gravedigger being avoided,” he says. “There is something to that. I once had a good friend; he liked me and I him, but I buried his father and for six months after he did not speak. He had been an easy man to get along with but he just had nothing to say and it was a case of the silence being louder than the words. It was very plain to see.”

The gravedigger accepts his portion of the silences but it is an uneasy truce, for dread lies in the crook of such silences. To shove such uneasily tenanted spaces away, he is an eloquent and voluminous talker. “I spent three years in the fifth grade, finished with the seventh and have learned since from books because I wanted to be able to keep up my end of the conversation. In history I could not say when the War of 1812 was begun, but I was good in reading and geography. I walked to school because I preferred to. I enjoyed it because I could talk my way through town. I like to talk so much you’d think I was vaccinated by a phonograph needle!

“Although I have only a seventh grade education I know that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second. I believe that is correct and if it takes that long, those stars are getting way out there. I know that air pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch and that if a bomb blew out in the yard near that sugar maple, why, it would create such a vacuum that there would be nothing to hold your body together and you would explode like a balloon! I’ve read that.”

Alone in his father’s house, the gravedigger walks to work in the graveyard regularly from April until September, and whenever a grave is to be dug the rest of the time. He has tended the cemetery for 23 years. For this he is paid what averages out to about $30 a week, and $65 for digging each grave, although most gravediggers ask $100. It is a source of pride that he has never asked for relief, and that he owes no man a penny. He keeps careful figures in a worn ledger which shows that in 1971 he made something over $1600, his most profitable year.

Photo by Dan Patterson
Photo by Dan Patterson

“My uncle was the town clerk and one day while I was doing day labor here and there he said, ‘Frank, I need a little help for a few days.’ Little did I think I’d be there 23 years. It seemed to suit my mother very well, though. She liked me to stay close to home and I did. She and my brother, Harold, are buried in the Caesar Creek Cemetery but I buried my other brother, Russell, myself. He said Caesar Creek was too snaky for him and he wanted in this one. Even though we didn’t get along too well and weren’t speaking at the time, I didn’t like digging his grave. It shouldn’t be that a man has to lay his own brother away. My uncle said I had to and that was that, but it didn’t set right.

“At first, being the gravedigger seemed strange. I did an awful lot of thinking. It didn’t look right to take pay for digging a man’s grave. I thought the money would do me no good, that it would just kind of get away from me. But I figured that someone had to do it. You don’t let your mind dwell on it when you’re covering a man up. Another person gone, right or wrong, and who’s a man to judge so quick? There used to be a fellow, Ralph McGill, a very good friend. He was a little older than I and married my niece. We used to have a little drink together and I’ll tell you something: he never condemned no man. He talked with good sense and had a good heart and burying him made me stop and think: the big name means nothing because six feet of earth makes all men the same size. There’s no discrimination to my work.”

He accepted the attendant silences, in his life and his work, and he began to notice the small progressions in the turning of all things. “Of course,” he says simply, “some notices such things as others don’t. Burials, for instance, seem to come in threes. When there are no graves for a bit, there’ll be one, then two more. Others have noticed it besides me. Roy Reeves has and he’s a very sensible man. It makes you wonder. Most graves, now, are 96 inches long and 40 inches wide and four feet deep. At one time, they were all six feet deep, then five, then when they stopped laying them out in pine boxes and went to vaults, they put them in at four feet. That’s so there’d still be 18 inches of dirt atop. It used to be that many boxes were made of pine and afterwards, the lid would sink and the dirt would follow and we would have to fill, but now it is almost a law that people use the vault although, myself, I think it is all about money. I’ve buried two in a pine box, and my mother. She said no vault, just pine, and that’s the way it was done. Now they lay a frame and put four cement biscuits on it for the base and lower the casket, then put a cement vault over it which is airtight. Some are made of steel. Me, I don’t care how it’s done as long as they don’t cremate me. Something doesn’t seem right about cremating. I don’t know. It makes no difference to me, a gold vault or a pine box. It’s nice to be laid away well but some people even in death desire to be above other people.”

The smallest of things here is enough to cause what others might call undue reflection, but it is a graveyard and who is so careless as to pass up any clue among these alien stones? “I have seen all manner of things,” says the gravedigger. The words have the ring of fine mystery. He could mean anything.

“I’ve seen rain fill the grave within inches and me dipping with a bucket. Then we used a pump and ran the water away with a downspout. We were dipping it out once as people came in. I have used everything in digging a grave but a screwdriver. I never saw but one open casket, however, and there was reason for it. Graves was the man’s name, strange, isn’t it? He died in Indiana and was shipped here and some of his people wanted to take a look. It seemed strange to me. I was not used to seeing it open. This time, I had a look at the man I was covering up and it made a difference to me although my work has never been just a job. I have never been merely putting a box away because I’ve buried 150 people at the least and there have been very few that I haven’t known. I think about all of them, even a stranger, although not so much as when I’m laying a friend away. I’ve always thought some about it and usually I think this: what was last on his mind? Somehow it seems important to me.

Photo by Ken Steinhoff
Photo by Ken Steinhoff

“Once, my uncle Bill moon and his friend, Bill Fletcher, dug up a man who was buried in the wrong place and after they got him up, my uncle said, ‘What do you say we take a little look now that he’s up?’ and so they opened it and do you know what? His whiskers had grown like everything and he was lying on his side. It makes a man think.

“I can remember digging up only one grave. It was a child’s grave, on the east side, and my job was to get it ready. I had to dig out all around it. I’ll tell you, when we took the vault away to get to the casket, there was nothing left but a few small bones. There was nothing wrong with it, I suppose, but there looking at what little remained, I felt lonely and sad. I’ve never had children, you know. It’s better to have had it and lost it than never to have nothing at all. I’ve been called sentimental by some but people would be better off with more of it.”

With quiet customs of his own, Frank Robinson the gravedigger watches the customs of others with a large and stout tolerance, which is as it should be, for is not his own work a custom that ends all the smaller ones before it?

“Different ones have different ideas. Don Mitchner raised race horses and when he died, they had me put a horseshoe in the cement of the base and if you can figure that out it is more than I can do. I’ll tell you, I’m not a superstitious man. I also remember when it was a custom to keep the body home for several days and the relations would sit up with it. I never got it through my head why. It was not going anywhere.

“On Decoration Day, I say, ‘This is your day.’ Only a few are persistent in coming here. I won’t mention any names but the well-off decorate the least. At one time I kept track of everyone I buried then I said, why, that’s a task for relations but then the relations would come to me and ask me about dates. It shows how much attention they’re paying to such things as are so permanent.

“The dead here are always buried with their head to the west, facing east like it says in the Bible, ready for the rising sun and the day of judgement. Undertakers know their directions and never ask and I learned quick. On Judgement Day the graves will give us up and provide us with a new body, the way I understand it. I hope I get a better one than this because it’s kind of beat up. I don’t believe in reincarnation but if after I’m gone and you see an old jackass in a field, treat him kindly just to be sure.”

Photo by Ken Steinhoff
Photo by Ken Steinhoff

Sometimes, nothing feels safe. Fragility lurks under the humor, isolation behind the articulation. Can the pale cure of science ever reach such deep spaces? The walls of the gravedigger’s house turn bare with the absence of paint, revealed for the process of decay. The gravedigger himself feels occasional pain, caustic with the burn of failing knowledge inside, but he does not see a doctor. “I haven’t seen one in 17 years,” he says. “I do no business with the middleman. I go to the top.” Growing older, the days slipping away like tiny silver fish, the nerve endings may cease to shrink in the impatience of transporting such a thing as the vague and tentative dancings of mystery.

“It used to be I had a fear of dying alone. People hardly ever came about, and around the grave you’re sensitive to it, not hardened as some would have you think. But death is not mysterious. It is going to a new place, of one kind or another. I can’t say too much about it. I am a peculiar fellow. I like to stop and think things over. I like to sit in the dusk each day before the lights go on and think: this is another day that is spent. What did it mean? I do not have too many thoughts anymore of me leaving this world. I’ll tend the cemetery and bury the dead and things will remain the way they are. A couple of years ago I went into the village and sat around downtown and scratched my head and said to myself that it seemed that the boys didn’t come around as much. Then I thought a minute and said to myself, ‘Wait a minute, Frank, it’s because you’ve buried most of them up on the hill….’”

The High and Waiting Ground Part II


In the graveyard, the stones tilting like a drunken regiment, the old man listens through the hanging quiet as though he can hear the cedar pushing its way through Edward Gaunt’s hundred-year-old bones. All sounds are suspect here, all nuances heard in the absence of boom and din. A man might heed the whisper of his marrow here, feel an accurate gravity, draw a sober breath. The old man does not say. He talks of geography, but its climate is only hinted at.

In the old section of the cemetery, where the dead are marked brashly in river rock, the rain that falls on Frank Lundy’s bottomlands below also scours the rock, removing the resisting marks. Moss creeps into the stonecut crevices. In the spring, the grass will again steal up from the bottomlands, hiding rock and marble and granite, reducing history to rumor.

Photo by Dan Patterson
Photo by Dan Patterson

The old man uses his cane like a marker. The words on tombstones to him are chapter headings in a known book, signposts on the way to a familiar town. He walks through lives like fallen leaves, standing slightly stooped on this island of precarious land, the ponderous stone blooms of marble and granite twisting up around him as if he is: a gardener bent by the perversity of his plants. “Lemar. John Lemar. It could not have been so long ago, it seems, but this granite does not lie. Fifty years, August, by these marks. Agnes Ruiner came running, saying, ‘Have you heard the news?’ She was breathless, a fright about her. I said, ‘I reckon I have not for I don’t know any.‘ She said, ‘It’s John Lemar. He’s hung himself in his barn.’ It was true. He fetched a cow rope and a box. He fixed the rope to his rafters and him to the rope, then kicked the box away. There were those of us who figured it was his health. He had been downtown one day and he remarked that he would never be a care to no one. John Lemar. The only man I ever knew that could chew tobacco without spitting.”

In clear moments, the old man can see the earth with the vision of some centuries-distant archeologist dazzled by a world of granite icons, its inhabitants reduced to curious, fading deceits. He laughs, but his laugh implies frustration. Can this be all? Such a magnificent ego-centricity reduced to this final short jab at an unfeeling universe!

The stones themselves remain as silent as the village below. Archeology will have its facts, man may think what he will, and the grave, like the world at its brink, is neutral and gives only one gift: a final equality. Here the poet and the ax murderer are brothers at last, though these are extreme vocations for the people of New Burlington. The earth shifts from fire within and ice without, the rains fall on river rock and cornfield and return to Anderson’s Fork, and the grass comes in the spring. To visitors, the graveyard is always quiet. Cobwebs in a fine flurry of suspension cross the stones in the face of winter like elaborate netting flashing silkily in the afternoon light. The old man pushes them away with his cane. He has a curious way of looking up as the stiffness of age holds him bowed, demanding its own reverence. He moves slowly with a slightly rocking gesture which both starts him and brings him to a halt. “I have only two speeds,” he says. “They are slow and stop.” To underscore either tragedy or comedy in his conversation, he turns his eyes in a steady upward fix, waiting patiently for reaction. He stops when one of his shoes begins to sink into the soft earth cut through by one of the graveyard moles but he is worried neither by his own flawed gravity nor this minor clutch of reclamation by the earth he belongs to. It is, he asserts, merely a mark of his passing.

“I have known a good woman, grew two sons to manhood. I have seen some of the country and read about much of the rest. I have lived largely a farming life and when I saw that my time was passing I did not want to move any more so I built a house and paid for it and it is my home. I come to the graveyard often. I am not afraid and that is the truth of it. I have a lot of feeling for this place because I have known many people in the village and most of them are up here now, here in the yard.”

The old man turns slowly. Field mice shriek and scurry in the graveyard’s oldest corner. Leaves tumble against granite. A mocking bird chatters uneasily from Edward Gaunt’s cedar. The old man lifts his cane solemnly at the mocking bird.

“There is noise everywhere but under these stones and who says that maybe under there is the noisiest place of all? My sister was put to rest here and for a good half year before she went, she heard choirs singing in perfect harmony the old church songs. She was in a rest home in Xenia and she thought it was the kind of music that is put into all kinds of places, in the walls. She worried about it being too loud for the others, and playing late at night, although she had no complaints. There was nothing for no one else to hear, although I never told her. I knew what it meant. It is a thing that has happened before to the very old, and it seems a comfort and a sign, but what is a scientific man to make of it? I sometimes think I hear things others do not, but of course I listen for different things. They should be careful, those who chide an old man’s ears, because there are those among us who have different principles.

“Some find it foolish that I am at peace here but I ask them: what is ground without the dead beneath it to give us comfort? I am not sure I would want to live forever because I have lived full and have no regrets. I sometimes think in a strange way, but I am not sure that we go naked to the grave, as the minister tells us. I think we do take things with us. There is a grave here which belongs to a Civil War soldier named John Wesley Smith and I have thought about it. It happened this way: in the last year of the war, a cable came to Harley Smith’s father saying his son had been killed in the fighting and the body would be shipped to Roxanna. Old Mr. Smith got a team to fetch the body home but when he got there it was no one related, but he brought the body home and buried it here decent, with a rock to mark it. It was said that the body was a Smith from Indiana but no one came to claim it and it stayed here. I have thought often of this and wondered what secret thing might have gone with him, something no one else knew or saw or shared and now it buried a hundred years behind this stone. My wife, now, is of a more practical turn, and she says I think too long upon solemn matters, but that is the way I am.”

The metaphysics of dust are not known, but accepted, for who can name what is lost in such sudden sleep? Something says the old man. Something. Any dying diminishes us all. His cane begins again, rapidly pointing over the stones. Memory-maddened, the old man becomes a barker of monuments, names spinning under his clattering cane like sideshows on some shadowy midway. Bachelors, old maids, children, suicides, and here and there an entire rout of a family stretched from north to south, a legion of stilled bloodlines running from stone to stone, three times a village swept under the green, all marked in indifferent rock.

“A man clings to whatever mark he can make,” the old man says. “It is our own fragility. When I was a boy, my father would leave his mark by his team in the fields, and other farmers did the same. It was their handwriting. They all knew, and it was enough for them. I, too, am vain about a stone. I know that it is late and foolish but we know nothing of where we are going. It is a tradition we cling to because it gives us comfort. There’s no science about it.

“William Wood there was a barn carpenter. He came here from Virginia. He came in the spring and went in the fall and walked both ways and once before the fall came he died and was buried here. He made his home with the old maid McKay sisters and anyplace he was building a barn. Some of the old ones can show you good work by him still standing firm. And this is an odd thing: on either side of him as if related is a brother, Edward Placethe here and Joseph Placethe there, both from Italy, come a long way to die strange and on ground so far from where they began. They lived near the covered bridge and painted and worked about on farms and stayed to themselves. One day, Edward was found out back by an old ashhopper used for the making of soap. He had suffered a spell of some sort and it must have been severe because he had pawed the ground with his feet and dug quite a hole. It had rained on him, also. A few years later, Joseph shot himself with a pistol. No one seemed to know the why of it. I remember it, though, because it was at the time of the Xenia fair, on a Thursday, and everybody gone. Later, distant relatives from off in New York City came to claim the 13 acres, but not the body.”

The old man is tired now. Hours have passed. The late afternoon air turns colder. Shadows fall behind the stones. Confronted here with the aphony of the grave, there is no resignation in the old man’s manner, only patience, as though the graveyard becomes finally the only accurate place for weary bones gone begging. Do we sometimes lose the way to death, it says, lingering along the way like children in the marketplace, denied grace? Death is more than the geography of some distant country. Could it be the necessary sting to prompt the living to an accurate sharpness, to heft the days by the handle of sound work? There are, the old man says, things more desolate than the grave. Build a house, plant a tree, conceive a son, and still panic in the hot breath of a personal Armageddon where the years spin away and everything leads to the dark maw of the grave.

“So many people I know are here now. There was a building where a bunch of the old ones would gather to sit around the stove when the weather got feisty. We would spin long tales and rework history the way we saw it. A lot of the old ones came by and then there were not so many and one day, it was only me, alone in a large room. I thought perhaps I was early but when time passed and no one came, I knew. They were all up here, up on the hill, so I stopped going by the old building and I began to come up here because it is where my memories are. It begins there and ends here, and after all these years, it does not feel strange to be here anymore. I can hear them as clearly as though we were by the stove, but this does not make me afraid. There are a lot of them and I feel close to them. Strange, isn’t it, my ideas of things? “Him there, I knew him since he cried. And him there, I went to school with him. This one faces this way, on my line, and it is my stone here. Why he is on my line I don’t understand but the trustees tell me they are moving it. I haven’t talked to the family. Let the trustees handle it. The woman set out these evergreens and it grew way out to here. Her husband said he would care for it and he came out with shears and trimmed it back a little but it’s all over on me just the same. That vase is setting on me and I would not call anyone on that but why was it placed that way? The evergreens grow so fast and no one comes back except on Decoration Day maybe and no one prunes and the stones are covered up.

“My talk is strange, I know, but I have been a few places and this is the last place I’ll go and I want it to look nice. That is why I am pointing this out.”

The graveyard has few visitors now that the village is gone and its people scattered. The most regular visitors are the gravedigger and the old man, who sometimes sit on the silent stones and talk. Neither thinks of himself as a visitor.


Received in New York on April 9, 1973

©1973 John Baskin

John Baskin, on leave from the Wilmington News-Journal, Wilmington, Ohio, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow, supported by a Ford Foundation grant. This article may be published with credit to Mr.Baskin, the News-Journal, the Ford Foundation, and the Alicia Patterson Foundation.