Strange Things Are Afoot at Oak Grove Cemetery

posted in: Cemetery Journal | 0

Every time I visit Oak Grove Cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia, I always seem to find something new and interesting and this last time, I found something that was quite odd. Bits of old debris such as glass bits and bottles; old leather, porcelain, metal bits…basically, it was fragments of old refuse that was mixed in with the leftover soil from a recent interment. After the burial, this excess soil, which contained these trash bits, went to an excess soil pile in the middle of the cemetery. After the cleanup, a fair amount of the debris bits remained spread about the aforementioned grave site.

Now before I continue, I would like to note that I have a strict policy for myself when I visit cemeteries. I do my best not to disturb anything and to tread lightly and with respect. None of the items I came across were physically disturbed, only photographed as I saw them. I take only pictures and leave only footprints as a motto.

Let me put on my Sherlock Deerstalker hat for a second…I knew the debris was old from the color of the glass and bottles, and there was no plastic. It had to be from the mid-twentieth century because of an old 1950s Coca-Cola bottle in the mix. Even though, and as far as I know, Oak Grove takes no new interments, it will still bury people who own plots from years ago, of course.  This was the case with Janie Comstock, who passed away last February and was buried alongside her husband James. Though Oak Grove is known as a historic Victorian Cemetery, being founded in 1850, the area where Janie and her husband are buried serves later burials from the ’90s and early 2000s.

Part of the debris field left after cleanup can be seen on and adjacent to the Comstock grave. The graves in this area are from the past twenty years, or more.

So here’s my first question – How did this unnatural debris come to be mixed in with the soil removed from Janie Comstock’s grave? The elephant in the room points to fill dirt from an old landfill. I mean, this particular area of the cemetery does look to be an addition from the original 1850 design.

How did I first notice the debris?

I sometimes park near a mound of odd excess soil and on my last visit, I saw some fresh dirt with sparkly things in it. Additionally, I have come to think that sometime between 2012-2014, things changed with the landscape management.  Anyone can see in Google Earth satellite shots and Google Street View, a new excess soil mound appeared in the middle of the cemetery around that time. Like most cemeteries, the excess soil mounds are usually, and discreetly, off to the side of the property. So, questions being…why the landscaping change? Was that excess mound just an open grassy area with no graves, that was started by incognizant landscapers around 2014, even after all these years? Were these refuse bits and dirt taken from a landfill, or from dredging to repair, or make landscape adjustments? Flooding maybe? It’s hard to tell, even in my 1930 aerial photo.

One thing I do know is this excess soil mound that has oddly appeared in the past five years- not only with this old refuse, but with bricks and chunks of cement too, which I personally think are parts of old grave memorials. It’s time to look deeper into this.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback.

Below are closeup shots of some of the items. I have concluded the debris is from the late ’40s through to the end of the ’50s. The Coke bottle and the Jergens jar helped a lot.

Here are some comparative images of the odd exess soil mound from my initial research.



*1930 Aerial photo taken by bombers from Langley Field and can be found at the US National Archives