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On Remote Island, The Dead Are Buried Far And Wide

Aug 28, 2012
Originally published on August 28, 2012 8:38 pm

Grindstone Island's lone public dock is just three miles north of the U.S. mainland, a straight shot by powerboat across the St. Lawrence River from Clayton, N.Y. Part of the Thousand Islands, Grindstone Island sits in a waterway shared by the U.S. and Canada.

Ken Deedy has owned a summer cabin on the island since 1964. On a recent tour, he is joined by another summertime resident, 19-year-old Jack Grobe. Despite their age difference, the two share a deep love of the island and its history. Grindstone is indeed a beautiful, rugged island: 15 square miles of thick forests, deep wetlands, and farms.

Deedy says there are only about 130 households on the island, which has no bridge or ferry service. In the past, wealthy summer residents would leave on their own boats at the end of the season. Many of the poorer residents would have to wait until the water froze over, so they could walk back across to the mainland.

"About eight people stay here year-round," Deedy says. "It's a very tough life."

Perhaps it's the remoteness of the island, or just the spirit of the place, that has led to a certain laissez-faire attitude to burial habits. Deedy points to his map of Grindstone and says he doesn't quite know how many cemeteries there are on the island.

"Every star that I put on the map is a cemetery, that I'm aware of anyway," he says. "Three, six, eight — not counting the guy who's planted outside my guest house," he says with a laugh.

"Those are just cemeteries that we're aware of," Grobe adds.

Deedy nods to a small grove of oak and maple trees next to his guesthouse, where lie the remains of his aunt's 84-year-old boyfriend, who loved the island and wanted to be buried there.

"I got myself a shovel, dug a hole, and filled it, and put a rock on top of it — local granite. It's not engraved or anything. And then when I told my nephew, who was about 23 at the time, he got really upset and took a tape measure, to see how far it was from his bed."

Touring the island with Deedy and Grobe, the main mode of transportation is all-terrain vehicles. You can see where remains are marked with just a simple rock, a lilac tree, or a piece of the beautiful pink granite that's pervasive on this island.

Each one is distinctly different from the other. Grobe says people on Grindstone learned long ago to take responsibility when their loved ones die.

"There was no official cemetery," Grobe says. "It wasn't like, 'My old grandma died — we better take her to the cemetery. It was, 'Grandma died — well, where are we going to put her on the farm?' "

Deedy says many of the graves hold the remains of only one person and are "private" cemeteries. But he's not certain they're legal. "You know, I just don't know; I don't ask questions like that," he says. And laughing, he adds, "Are you allowed to? Who cares?"

There is one small official cemetery on Grindstone Island, with tended lawns and proper headstones. But Deedy and Grobe say there are probably hundreds of people buried on Grindstone that no one knows about. Others are communal plots.

One is what Deedy and others call "the Civil War cemetery."

It isn't an official military cemetery; in fact, it's a remote community plot that holds some Civil War veterans. Sitting on a slight hill, the cemetery includes about a dozen small white crosses, often planted next to rocks.

Grobe says the site was neglected for many years. Just 10 or 15 years ago, no one knew what was here. But now residents maintain it. And that's led to some surprises.

"Right now we're heading over to a thicket with a grave I was not aware of," Grobe says. "Oh — 1864!" he exclaims.

"I didn't know about this, this must've been overgrown," Deedy says.

"This is a new grave," Grobe says.

"This was probably obscured by this honeysuckle, which is an invasive tree," Deedy says, "and it's been recently cleared out. But this is one of the Civil War dead."

Perhaps one of the most special cemeteries on Grindstone Island is in a small clearing on one of the highest spots on the island. Four oak Adirondack chairs sit between oak and pine trees, overlooking the fields leading to the St. Lawrence River.

The luscious scent of milkweed drifts through the area. The site belongs to Imogene Augsbury; two of her husbands are buried here, as are her parents. Another stone marks her son's remains. Augsbury says she loves to sit and meditate at her cemetery.

"We love to walk up here and sit, just look at the view on a beautiful day," she says.

Even at his tender age, Grobe says that when his time is up, he also wants to be buried on Grindstone.

"It's a beautiful area, and it's the place where I've had some of the best experiences of my life," he says. "So I think if little bits of me are going to sit for thousands of years, I'd want them to sit here."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The next installment of "Dead Stop," our summer road trip to interesting cemeteries and final resting places, takes us to the U.S.-Canadian border.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: That's the theme music for "Dead Stop," by the way. NPR's Jackie Northam visited Grindstone Island where cemeteries are plentiful and the number of dead is unknown.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORBOAT)

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Grindstone Island is just three miles north of the U.S. mainland; a straight shot - by powerboat - across the St. Lawrence River from Clayton, New York. It's an American island, in a waterway shared by the U.S. and Canada. It's part of the Thousand Islands. There is only one public dock on Grindstone.

JACK GROBE: Thanks for coming up, Jackie.

KEN DEEDY: I'm Ken, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Nice to meet you, hi.

Ken Deedy has owned a summer cabin on Grindstone Island since 1964. We're also accompanied on our tour by another summertime resident, 19-year-old Jack Grobe. Despite the age difference, the two share a deep love of the island and its history. Grindstone is indeed a beautiful, rugged island; just 15 square miles with thick forests, deep wetlands and farms.

Deedy says there are only about 130 households on the island. There's no bridge or ferry service to Grindstone. In the past, wealthy summer residents could leave on their own boat, at the end of the season. Many of the poorer residents would have to wait, and walk to the mainland once the water froze over.

DEEDY: About eight people stay here year-round. It's a very tough life.

NORTHAM: Perhaps it's the remoteness of the island, or just the spirit of the place, that has led to a certain laissez-faire attitude to burial habits. Deedy points to a map of Grindstone, and says he doesn't quite know how many cemeteries there are on the island

DEEDY: Every star that I put on the map is a cemetery - that I'm aware of, anyway.

NORTHAM: So how many have we got there, then?

DEEDY: (counting) Three, six, eight.

GROBE: And that's not even...

DEEDY: Not counting the guy who's planted outside my guest house, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

NORTHAM: Now, what were you saying?

GROBE: Those are just the cemeteries we're aware of.

NORTHAM: Deedy nods to a small grove of oak and maple trees next to his guesthouse, where there are the remains of his aunt's 84-year-old boyfriend who loved the island, and wanted to be buried there.

DEEDY: I got myself a shovel, dug a hole and filled it, and put a rock on top of it - granite, local granite rock. It's not engraved, or anything. And then when I told my nephew, who was about 23 at the time, he got really upset and took a tape measure, and measured to see how far it was from his bed. So... (LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF ATV MOTOR)

NORTHAM: When Deedy and Grobe start touring the island - the main mode of transportation is all-terrain vehicles - you can see where remains are marked: with just a simple rock or a lilac tree, or a piece of beautiful pink granite that's pervasive on this island. Each one is distinctly different than the other. Grobe says people on Grindstone learned long ago to take responsibility when their loved ones die.

GROBE: There was no official cemetery. It wasn't like oh, Grandma died; we'd better take her to the cemetery. It was, Grandma died; well, where are we going to put her on the farm ?

NORTHAM: Deedy says many of the graves hold the remains of only one person and are, quote, "private cemeteries." But he's not certain they're legal.

DEEDY: I - I - you know, I just don't know. (LAUGHTER) I don't ask questions like that, you know. Are you allowed to - who cares?

NORTHAM: There is one small, official cemetery on Grindstone Island, with tended lawns and proper headstones. But Deedy and Grobe say there are probably hundreds of people buried on Grindstone that no one knows about. Others are communal plots.

DEEDY: We are headed to what we call the Civil War Cemetery...

NORTHAM: This isn't an official military cemetery. In fact, it's a remote community plot with some Civil War vets. The cemetery is on a slight hill. There are about a dozen small, white crosses - often, planted next to rocks. Grobe says the site was neglected for many years. Ten or 15 years ago, no one knew what was in here. But now, residents maintain it. And that leads to some surprises.

GROBE: And right now, we're heading over to a thicket, with a grave I was not aware of. Oh - 1864.

DEEDY: I didn't know about this. This must've been overgrown.

GROBE: This is a new grave.

DEEDY: This was probably obscured by this honeysuckle, which is an invasive tree. And it's been recently cleared out. But this is one of the Civil War dead.

NORTHAM: Perhaps one of the most special cemeteries on Grindstone is in a small clearing, on one of the highest spots on the island. Four Adirondack chairs sit between oak and pine trees. They overlook the fields leading to the St. Lawrence River. The luscious scent of milkweed drifts through the area. The site belongs to Imogene Augsbury. Two of Augsbury's husbands are buried here, as are her parents. Another stone belongs to her son. Augsbury says she loves to sit and meditate at her cemetery.

IMOGENE AUGSBURY: We love to walk up here and sit, look at the view on a beautiful day.

NORTHAM: Even at his tender age, Jack Grobe says when his time is up, he also wants to be buried on Grindstone.

GROBE: It's a beautiful area, and it's the place where I've had some of the best experiences of my life. So - I think if little bits of me are going to sit for thousands of years, I'd want them to sit here.

NORTHAM: Jackie Northam, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And we have more from our "Dead Stop" series at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.