GREENFIELD, Mass. (AP)—The eternal slumbers of about 50 people—including a former Massachusetts governor—are about to be interrupted, either by nature or man.
Directors of the Green River Cemetery are rushing against gravity in an attempt to exhume and rebury the remains before they slide down a steep slope into the cemetery's namesake.
"We need to move as fast as we can,'' said Alan Blanker, president of the Green River Cemetery Co., the nonprofit group that runs the public burial ground. "The last thing we want is for any remains to slip away.''
For a final resting place, the Green River Cemetery seems about as quiet and peaceful as they come. Well-manicured paths wind through the 25-acre site, passing tree-shaded headstones and a monument carved by the sculptor Daniel Chester French.
But the tranquility was shattered in March, when strong storms knocked down trees and washed away several yards of soil on the cemetery's northern side. With more rain came more erosion, until the ground retreated up to about a foot away from one grave.
About 50 other graves—most dating to the 1800s—are now just feet away from the steep precipice and a 200-foot slide toward the Green River.
Under state law, exhuming a body requires a copy of a death certificate and approval from the family of the deceased.
Because most the bodies are so old, and meeting those mandates may be nearly impossible, a Probate Court judge waived those requirements. If there are no objections registered with the court by July 31, the bodies will be able to be reburied.
Cemetery officials just have to figure out exactly how to do it.
"It's such a sensitive topic, you hate to even talk about it,'' said Ed Snow, the cemetery's superintendent. "It's a doable project. We just need to make sure we do it right.''
The cemetery caretakers are enlisting the help of surveyors and contractors to determine the best way to uncover the graves. Because the plots are so close to an unstable drop-off, Blanker said he's not sure whether it will be safe to have people shovel them out. Cranes may have to be called in for the job.
"The life and safety of the workers is more important than the remains of somebody who's been deceased for over 100 years,'' Blanker said.
Because nobody can tell when—or even if—a landslide would occur, headstones have been moved several yards from the sites they're supposed to mark.
A 40-foot obelisk that towered over the grave of William Washburn, a Republican governor from 1872 to 1874, now lies on its side on terra firma. Dozens of headstones for more Washburns and members of other families lost in the 19th century to ailments like fever, consumption and ulcers are lined up nearby.
Blanker said surviving members of the Washburns have given their permission to relocate the remains of their relatives to a new spot in the cemetery. Cemetery officials declined to give the names or contact information for the relatives, citing privacy concerns.
Of the 50 or so people buried in the 10,000-square-foot spot, only 15 were interred in the past century. The most recent—a Washburn descendant—was laid to rest last year. Prior to that, the last burial in the area was in 1994, according to cemetery documents.
The oldest known age of any of the deceased was 88; the youngest was one day.
When the unearthing begins, Blanker says nobody is sure exactly how much of anyone's remains will be found because of antiquated burial techniques.
"We've never done anything like this before,'' he said. "So we'll just have to see what we find.''