A grave offense

The shocking news of late has involved a group of drunken teenagers who desecrated St. Joseph’s Cemetery and then, unable to sate their stupidity, decided to break into the Oxford Memorial Library.

Now I’ve had a few of my own crazy nights, but I’ve yet to cross the alcohol-fueled temptation to grab a shovel and go to a cemetery; though I’m sure some loathsome frat boys I knew in college probably fought the urge.

It’s not much of a secret that graveyards occasionally conceal the standard teenage debauchery (or at least it had in my day), and I think it’s important not to confuse the offenders of this desecration with the general mischief-makers in the younger population. These perpetrators are utter criminals.

Just the idea walking over a person’s grave makes most people go around. Can you imagine intentionally tipping over a headstone? Or thirty of them?

I traveled to the cemetery and saw dozens of stones lying face down like dominos, stretching from one side of the hill to the other. For those who don’t know, local Catholics built their early cemeteries on hills because it was cheaper land; the down side, literally, that was clearly demonstrated here, is leverage.

Often these graves are looking in the direction of the valley, so the tombstones were shoved in the direction of the down grade, falling on top of those laid to rest beneath. Standing alone in the worst section, it felt more like cut rocks in a quarry than a cemetery.



Father Thomas Ward of St. Joseph’s Church called the effort Herculean, and that’s what it was. Several of the pieces lying on the ground were several hundred pounds of 150-year-old granite carved to honor a loved one who could have died fighting the Civil War.

The three shameless youths who committed these acts truly put their backs into it. Using a shovel and spade they originally brought to dig up a corpse, they spent half an hour destroying the most historic part of the cemetery. You think that’d be enough, but these over-achievers decided to walk all the way across town at about 2 a.m. and break into a library.

So desecrate a graveyard, then steal from the library ... what the hell is wrong with these kids? Where were their parents?

While I was snapping pictures for the paper Saturday morning, I ran into two men slowly walking between fallen headstones with expressions that one might expect to see an ongoing burial and mourners atop the hill.

The two men were among several people who have visited St. Joseph’s Cemetery since the crime was reported to see if their family members had been victims.

One, James Dunne of Norwich, pointed out his great grandfather’s headstone standing proud, saved by its sheer mass and dimension. The neighboring graves adjacent to the stone were less fortunate. That was the pattern dotted across the rows of graves like Morse code; it seemed that if the stone was too heavy or difficult to move, the perpetrators just kept moving on down the line.

Then the gentleman pointed out something I didn’t expect – a 128-year-old headstone etched with the word ‘Murphy’ or at least half of it, the other parts lay embedded in the earth on top of my could-be relative. There were a couple of Murphys hailing from the same areas my heritage sprouted in the county.

This was a surprise, and while I doubt I could trace my lineage 150 years, regardless fate brought my attention to another horrid fallout of the crime.

Very few of the graves probably have active family members capable of acting on their interests or restoring them. So for example let’s say one third of the stones can’t be replaced – that’d be over a thousand years of local heritage taken out of existence by a cheap night of teenage thrills.

Oh, I almost neglected to mention the part where I stared at a hole carved out of the ground. The other two men at the cemetery and I thought that maybe a headstone fell and dug up the earth and was moved by either the perpetrators or the police.

Must be the twisted notion of digging up a human being while they lay in a grave didn’t occur to us. The criminals even brought tools to carry out the job.

This is one of those times common sense needs to trump all other considerations. They were older teenagers who were drinking ... perhaps a premise for some leniency, I suppose, but I’m really not impressed with that particular defense.

They premeditated enough by having the foresight to acquire digging equipment, then adjusted their plans to general destruction in a group effort that last over 20 minutes in which they cooperatively destroyed dozens of tombs, some up to 8 feet tall and over 450 pounds.

Then after that, they brainstormed a second plan to go to the library and stole a ‘wishing well’ inside the building. The box collected change donations for the library’s construction fund.

I don’t believe there was a reason or practical design to any of the crimes committed; they were simply made in the moments of teenage angst, contempt and exhilaration – which is the most disturbing part.

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