Most have heard, at least in passing, the story of Eastern Cemetery’s troubled history. Andy Harpole had heard enough.
“It’s a place I used to go and just kind of walk around,” Harpole says. “When I was in the midst of some personal turmoil, I would go there. It was kind of like the only place that felt as sad as I was at the time. I always wished there was something I could do to help the place. But what could one person do for a place that big and in that bad of shape?”
Harpole would emerge from his personal turmoil and form Friends of Eastern Cemetery to help restore and maintain the historic grounds; along the way, he convinced a local filmmaker to investigate the story of the misdeeds at what is now called “the most over-buried cemetery in the country.”
That was three years ago, and this spring, “Facing East” will finally be released to the public. While details are still being set, the film, featuring interviews with key role-players and more, will premiere locally accompanied by a limited DVD release. From there, the filmmakers hope to gain nationwide distribution, having signed with a Texas-based distributor.
Producer Paul Coffey of Ronin Noir Films initially thought the project might take a year. But the more they moved forward, the more discoveries they made about the cemetery situated next to Cave Hill Cemetery, with its entrance on Baxter Avenue across from the former site of Phoenix Hill Tavern.
“Originally, we would interview Andy and interview family members and cut it together,” Coffey tells Insider. “As we were going, we discovered how deep the rabbit hole goes. When you’re doing this type of project, creatively we say we want to tell the most interesting story possible and answer as many questions as possible. As you start talking to people, you generate your own list of questions. For us, the biggest question was, ‘How did this happen on a legislative level? How were these guys allowed to get away with this?’”
As early as the mid-1800s, bodies were being buried in mass paupers’ graves at Eastern. At the time, however, that was not illegal — transients, slaves, anyone without money to pay for a burial typically would go into a pauper’s grave.
The cholera epidemic of the 1880s created another influx of bodies. Sometimes it was someone who simply was unknown.
“If a passer-through who has no identification drops dead in Louisville, he is buried as an indigent,” Coffey says of that time. “So many people died per day. You just gotta get them in the ground.”
But as decades went by, cemetery ownership began to re-use graves that had been purchased by families. Apparently, it happened over and over, year after year. Finally, in 1989, an employee of the Louisville Crematories and Cemetery Company blew the whistle. The story made national headlines, but no one was ever held accountable from a legal standpoint.
While the extent of the over-burial at Eastern may never be precisely known, Harpole claims that while there are roughly 16,000 graves in the cemetery, there is documentation for some 138,000 bodies.
“It’s insane,” he says. He adds that, in addition to burying body on top of body in places, in others the graves were dug up and reused, often churning debris and human remains into the surrounding dirt.
“It’s like tossed salad out there,” Harpole says. “That’s one reason we try to keep dogs out of there — because dogs by instinct dig for bones.”
And there also is the story of medical cadavers from the University of Louisville. While a person who donates his body to science legally is guaranteed intact burial or cremation, boxes were uncovered at Eastern that weren’t quite right. It caused a mess that may never be fully cleaned up. Each box was supposed to contain a full body for cremation and/or burial.
“Then you open up the box, and it’s got three heads in it, or 26 toes,” Coffey says.
“There were boxes that had 10 heads, there was one with 14 arms,” Harpole adds. “This is highly, highly illegal. That investigation was ‘squashed’ and nobody can answer why.”
Coffey is more cautious with his words, saying, “We don’t want to give the impression Easter Cemetery is over-buried and caskets are stacked on each other in a nice, neat manner. We also don’t want to give the impression that bodies were exhumed and removed.”
Coffey believes the laws of the late 1800s perhaps led to some unsavory methods, which simply remained in practice.
“A good portion of it was not of malicious intent,” he says. “A good portion of it was, ‘We have all these bodies and we have to get them buried.’ A good portion was also law: Paupers, slaves, indigents can be buried two or three feet below the surface, and in shrouds, which deteriorate quickly. Then animals can get to them.”
But that was in the early days. Coffey, when asked if the charges of impropriety have been overstated, says, “It was definitely malicious. I’m not saying it was not malicious.”
This is evident of just how complicated and convoluted the story really is, and that’s exactly what the documentary hopes to address. And that’s also where it becomes even more complicated. Today, the cemetery is in limbo — Coffey says the state won’t take it over because of the cost to restore it completely, and the original ownership won’t claim it because they would then be financially responsible.
“In a narrative film, there is a bad guy,” Coffey says. “In real life, there’s not really a bad guy, just multiple people who didn’t know what was going on.”
And so Eastern Cemetery sits in limbo, with its only true friends being Harpole and his group of volunteers and filmmakers. Because these 168,000 bodies are mostly Louisvillians, many with living descendants, and it becomes personal — for everyone in the city, even if they may not know it. It became personal for Coffey.
“A year into our investigation, my mom says, ‘Yeah, that’s the cemetery your godmother’s stillborn was missing from,’” Coffey says. “I remember at age 6 or 7, my mom and godmother trying to find her son’s cremated remains.”
As it turns out, the stillborn child was buried as a John Doe because the father claimed the family could not afford a proper burial. Rather than bury the remains individually, the cemetery would “put the babies on ice” and then cremate them all at once.
“They got a cheaper burn rate,” Coffey says. “They did them all at once, 26 at the same time. They were boxed up in one box.”
The cemetery has been in a state of decay ever since the problem was brought to light in 1989, with nature slowly claiming the grounds and vandals defacing and sometimes destroying headstones. Harpole has stepped up in recent years, recruiting volunteers to help maintain the cemetery and restore as many grave markers as possible.
But “Facing East” finally is set to tell a more complete story than, more than likely, ever has been told before, and Harpole hopes the documentary will bring more friends to the cemetery’s aid.
“The story needs to be told for the families’ sakes,” Harpole says.