Bay Journal

Watery grave awaits cemeteries near shorelines as sea level rises

  • By Kent Mountford on October 01, 2007
Shoreline erosion threatens a graveyard on lower Hooper Island, MD. In the background is shoreline stone riprap placed to retard the Bay’s advance. (Kent Mountford) Kent Mountford fires his cannon. This was the cannon used to fire the remains of Kenneth Gosner in the Chesapeake Bay.  (Dove crew)

Based on evidence from grave sites, people have been dying around the region for at least 10,000 years-since the Chesapeake Bay's existence. There are also human artifacts that date back an additional 6,000 years, although any evidence of burials has disappeared.

Native American tradition goes back even further. The chief of one Virginia tribe, once told me: "We believe we have always been here."

The predecessors of the Piscataways and neighbor tribes north of the Potomac (in what is now Maryland) left significant ossuaries-locations containing the bones of many dead people dating back to the 1500s.

Scientists Doug Owlsley and Doug Ubelaker at the Smithsonian Institution studied those remains and discovered a wealth of information about Native American health, the age structure of populations and infant mortality in the centuries before European intervention. (This was before Native American were able to prevent the disturbance of their ancestors' remains.)

It was wonderfully instructive to be able to compare these remains with those of early English settlers and African Americans excavated on archaeological sites here and in Britain.

But archaeologists may not be able to work with some of these sites in future as nature chooses to excavate human remains on her own terms.

Around the Bay's eroding shorelines, terra firma is an uncertain place for one's supposed final rest. On Bay islands like Barren, James and Hooper, graves are opening to the eroding waters and gravestones are tipping into the tides. It's happened on Solomon's Island, MD, where in 1893, it was noted: "and when the storm subsided the earth was torn and bare, and coffins were broken open, corpses were exposed and the clothing of some of the dead was found on the beach."

The same goes for sites all around the Bay. In Virginia's Northern Neck, and on the York River, the graves of early colonists buried centuries ago and Native Americans buried a thousand years ago are washing away. On Virginia's Eastern Shore, Arvel Johnson, who has taken on the role of custodian of 10 African American cemeteries, watched a member of his own family come to light: "I looked at my own great uncle a couple of times. There was a hole in the side of the vault and he was floating on a casket piece."

Students at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Bishop Head facility, where a small cemetery was washed away, have been finding dentures and the handles pall bearers used while carrying the coffins to their (ultimately) temporary resting places.

Sea level rise, of course, is the major force driving these involuntary exhumations around the Chesapeake, but it is not the only force at work. Subsidence, or the settling of the land-a phenomenon in progress since the last ice age-has been exacerbated on the Eastern Shore by well water withdrawals for agriculture and development.

These erosional processes are not subtle and incremental, but often episodic, occurring in the midst of storms when wave action aggressively chews the shoreline, and flood tides put waves to work against higher ground where they normally could not attack.

Well-meaning people on the Eastern Shore islands and at the mouth of the Potomac are trying to assemble resources to fight the process and preserve parts of their community history in context. But they are doomed to ultimate failure if the shoreline trends established over thousands of years continue their course.

I've always had a problem with cemeteries. I've seen so many graveyards abandoned, misused or even left stranded on traffic "islands" surrounded by oblivious modern commuters. This is not the peaceful cemetery-with mowed grass and sunset vistas-in which many burials initially take place.

Cremation is an alternative and offers some interesting options.

Chesapeake poet Gilbert Byron spent his years along San Domingo Creek on the Maryland's Eastern Shore. This byway is considered by some as the waterman's "back door" into St. Michaels, which in Byron's time went from sleepy village to tony and expensive tourist destination. Byron's wish, when he died in 1991, was to be cremated and have his ashes sprinkled into the tide from his own dock so minute traces of him might go back and forth around the pilings and marshes that had given him so much inspiration.

Seven years ago, John Helldorfer approached me about his idea for what has been called a "dead man's reef" built out of cremains. At the time, he was concerned about public opinion and the red tape he might encounter. (Actually, scattering ashes at sea is legal in all states except California.)

Helldorfer was only slightly ahead of the times. In 2002, Scott Harper reported in the Virginian-Pilot on the first Chesapeake use of reef balls-geometric concrete units used to augment artificial reefs for fishing-into which the cremated remains of a longtime fisherman had been incorporated. The units themselves were invented about 10 years ago and almost half a million of them-without human remains-have been sunk worldwide in restoration products. The ones used in Virginia were made under franchise by licensees Fran and Josh Loney, who build these engineering structures as a business.

This concept-almost any concrete unit will work-seems to be creative, but it's unclear how many human remains will end up on the Bay floor this way. There are roughly 16 million people now living in the watershed. There is the potential to make a pretty big pile.

My good friend Captain Dwight Williams' late sister Audra had spent her career at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. She was cremated and it was her wish to have her ashes scattered at sea. This should have been a simple matter from Dwight's 22-ton motorsailer ketch, but by the time Williams' brother Parker could come down for the informal ceremony, the year was well-advanced and they headed out of the harbor into rough and wet weather. Tears ran down the cheeks of both brothers as they donned foul weather gear and prepared to say good-bye.

But when they uncovered the container containing the cremains and stepped out onto the rolling deck, a blast of wind whipping round the deck house created a minor tornado, drawing up Audra's pulverized remains and plastering both grieving brothers with cement-like ashes.

Tears turned to laughter at the image they presented to each other, and they roared out that Audra, a crusty woman who brooked no nonsense, had surely had the last laugh that day. The rest of her, Dwight said, went good humoredly into the sea, but some of her returned to port to be hosed off on the dock.

My dear friend and mentor was Kenneth Lynn Gosner, a naturalist and writer who led me gently, and with artful instruction, into the path of science. Later in life he had an operation on a heart valve defect, but it was only a temporary success.

In recovery he joined us aboard Capt Jack Russell's skipjack, The Dee of Saint Mary's one autumn day on the Patuxent River. Gosner, in addition to being a marine biologist, was a pretty good maritime historian who had preserved the plans of many old fishing vessel types. He built a number of wonderfully detailed ship models for exhibit in the Newark Public Museum in New Jersey. I possess an unfinished model, which, along with some of his half-hull builder's models, are on display in my library.

Gosner had researched Chesapeake skipjacks and corresponded with the Smithsonian's Howard I. Chapelle, whose own naval architectural drawings rescued many Chesapeake working watercraft types from oblivion.

He had been aboard many commercial fishing vessels in his time, from the Caribbean to the near Arctic, but he took special delight as Russell dragged for oysters. (There were not many in the Patuxent that cold autumn day...nor since!) Reflecting on his then precarious health, he said to me, "Kent, I think I'd like my funeral to be on this ship." And smiling at me he added: "You can shoot my ashes out of your cannon!"

So, when my good friend died, I called up Russell and told him about Gosner's wishes. It was early in the day, when together with Ken's widow, Pamela, and son, Kevin, aboard, we set out from St Georges Creek off the lower Potomac. The shafts of sun were low and slanting down to the junction of this great river and Chesapeake as the tide swept us along.

Russell, his mate John Fulchiron and I rolled my cannon, a 185-pound, cast iron reproduction gun, to the rail on its wooden naval carriage and secured the rope falls against the ship's roll and its own recoil.

I'd taken the cremains and made them part of a cement projectile for the cannon.

We loaded him up atop a charge of black gunpowder and I put a percussion cap in place over the vent, flipped back the brass cannon-lock and smartly pulled the lanyard. The snap of primer was followed instantly by the roar and recoil as the gun belched fire and smoke, leaping back against her tethers. Gosner shot out in a great arc across the low clouds.

The shot struck the Bay, rebounded once, ricocheting off the water before plunging home into a rising wave with a fountain of water spraying 12 feet into the air.

Gosner's widow and son sprinkled his remaining ashes over the rail in a tearful farewell. I spoke on what I thought significant about this manner of burial for a man who'd loved and studied the sea. This is the gist of that, recorded in my logbook.

"Today we fulfilled his wish to be borne aboard the Dee on his final voyage...while part of him is now in the Bay for all geologic time-some of the cremains (those sprinkled into the waters) now enter circulation throughout the World's oceans, a journey of some 6,000 years."

In this amount of time, oceanographers estimate, the sea cycles water masses 'round a long "ocean conveyer" eventually returning portions to where they started.

"What will those molecules of Ken Gosner find...in the year 8000...when the salt wedge (at the Bay's mouth) returns them to what was once called the Chesapeake? Will it be as changed as...6,000 years ago [when] people in Mesopotamia scribed the Gilgamesh Epic in moist clay? What an interesting journey, old friend."

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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