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A Coffin Surprise in the Backyard

By Violet Wisdom

A recent finding of a tiny coffin in a California backyard begs the question, could this happen anywhere? Edith Howard Cook’s coffin and remains were found fully preserved.

For hundreds of years, Americans were burying their loved ones in small family cemeteries before modern large cemeteries were created. Once those cemeteries became common, municipal zoning regulations made it illegal for most people to continue the at home burial practice. In the case of the California coffin, it was actually buried in a cemetery back in 1876 which was later relocated for land development. Edith Howard Cook’s coffin was accidentally left behind. 

Moving cemeteries has also been a common practice over the years due to relocating land for housing, business developments and the creation or widening of roads. There is a small cemetery that butts up to the edge of the main road I drive to the KUNX office every day. Most of the graves were moved when the road was created, many left intact are up against the curb. 

To answer the question proposed, could this happen anywhere?, the answer is yes. The following are a few facts to consider beyond the possibility of a grave relocation such as the one in California:

  1. Native Americans have lived here for at least 23,000 years. This most recent update having come from archaeologists just last year. With the advent of supercomputers (which can reduce carbon dating testing from years to minutes), and the physical changes to soil due to fires and lake water evaporation, I expect an onslaught of new discoveries and data to start pouring in. Because Native American burial practices were typically so different from modern-day American practices, these historic graveyards are much harder to spot. Numerous unmarked graves of Indigenous children have also been found in recent years at the locations of former Christian cultural reform schools both in the United States and Canada. 

  2. Migration graves such as those along the California and Oregon trails were often unmarked or simply marked with wood or stone. As pioneers moved west, many died of illnesses such as cholera and injuries. They had no time to stop and create a cemetery, they simply buried the dead in a shallow grave and moved on. According to the Bureau of Land Management, 20,000 to 30,000 pioneers died along the Oregon California Trail alone. 

  3. The graves of enslaved people were also commonly unmarked and in cases of mass deaths due to illnesses such as cholera, they were often buried in mass graves. A Girl Scout Troop in South Carolina discovered nearly 200 unmarked graves in 2022. Most of which are believed to have been enslaved people. 

Wherever people have tread, they have also perished. While Edith Howard Cook’s coffin and remains were found fully preserved, that is rarely the case. Most graves are found during excavation and consist only of scattered remains. ALL GRAVES are protected, marked or unmarked. They are also accessible by law for living relatives to visit whether on private or public land. 

For more details on this subject and more, be sure to sign up for your advanced copy of " Before you Buy: How to Research a House for Ghosts" written by myself and Margie Kay which will be out this fall.

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