First, if you live up North and are completely used to seeing receiving vaults, you’ll have to excuse my enthusiasm. On a recent visit to Knoxville my friend Keila and I decided to throw on jackets and visit the local cemeteries. It was a gray, gloomy day, the perfect kind of day to go poking around old tombstones and vaults. The first stop was Greenwood Cemetery, a sprawling place that not only included some beautiful monuments, but had one side that was more like a park, with flat markers and pretty green lawns. We had stopped there originally to look at some of the mausoleums toward the front of the cemetery that featured beautiful stained glass windows, but we got distracted and soon found ourselves walking toward the back of the property. At the very back we could see a huge obelisk standing out against the backdrop of red and yellow trees and we made our way toward it. It was the Kesterson monument, and by far the tallest structure I’ve seen in any cemetery to date. All around it were generations of the same family, and all of the markers were done in white marble. It was a pretty and peaceful spot in the landscape, the perfect place to spend eternity if you happened to be a Kesterson. Just behind it was a hill that climbed into the woods and we noticed two doors in the hillside. We wandered over, thinking it was a mausoleum at first but we noticed that there was no name on the stonework or the doors. The doors were slightly open, offering a silent invitation to enter.
“I’m going in,” said Keila, walking toward it and looking determined.
“Okay,” I said, not moving.
“Well, come with me!” she demanded, and I started laughing and followed after her.
When we reached the doors she pulled one open and it gave way with a perfect haunted-house groan of rusted hinges, sounding like they hadn’t been used in ages. She waited for me to go in ahead of her, and I stepped inside. The interior was made of old brick that formed an archway over my head. It was empty and smelled strongly of mold, dirt, and brick dust, and the smell seemed to stick in the back of my throat. I stood there for a moment and wondered if it was a receiving vault. I’d never seen one before but had heard about them, oddly enough when I was reading a biography of Lizzie Borden.
That’s when I saw Keila’s face go pale and she pointed to the ceiling right over my head with a look of horror. Crouching in the dim light above me were dozens of huge black crickets, just hanging there like bats. I bolted. We stood in the doorway and peered in for a couple more minutes before carefully shutting the door and walking to the car, breathing in gulps of fresh air. On the way to the next cemetery we speculated about the doors and why they were open, why the room was placed in the hillside like that, and what the original use had been.
The Old Gray Cemetery was considered to be the second oldest one on the city. It was smaller than the Greenwood and had an intimate feeling to it because it was surrounded by a low wall. The cemetery was also chock-full of Victorian funerary art. Urns and angels and open Bibles on pedestals and crumbling mausoleums! It was a tapophile’s dream come true and Keila and I were smiling as we drove in. We rode through the front gates and noticed two men walking a dog up ahead, and a pack of homeless men wandering out the gates seconds after we pulled in. In fact, the cemetery was clearly used as a home base for several people. While we were there we saw blankets under trees, laundry hanging from branches, and it was clear that people were sleeping on the steps of some of the mausoleums, as well as doing other more unsavory things.
Maybe it was the rain, or maybe the fact that people had to live in that cemetery, but it felt like a sad place with heavy energy surrounding it where the others we had visited had and felt loved and cared for. We walked around for quite awhile looking at all of the statues and the dates on headstones. When we were making our way back toward the front I saw a large mausoleum and walked over- but then I saw the words at the top. In big official block letters that left no doubt as to it’s purpose it said RECEIVING VAULT. The doors on this one were locked with padlocks the size of my fist, which is probably a good thing. I was still anticipating an asthma attack from the first moldy vault I’d been in that day and if this one had been open I’d have been inside, to hell with the asthma.
It too been placed into the side of a hill and I climbed up to the top and found a large brick air vent. I always look for the vents on mausoleums, new and old. I think it’s interesting that some of them are decorative and covered with ironwork made to look like a small window, while others are clearly there for a grim purpose and are not so discreet. If the large air vent at the top of this vault wasn’t enough, the doors were vented as well with open latticework at the top. If Keila were taller I would have made her give me a boost to peek inside.
These structures were used to hold bodies during the winter months in colder parts of the country, and they sometimes had large shelves on the walls so multiple coffins could be placed inside and then locked up until the burial in more favorable weather. Here in Florida, we don’t see them. Here we see sandy cemeteries, vicious ground bees, and kudzu vines. Also, a decent amount magical objects, but that’s a post for another day. No receiving vaults.
A weird bit of history- Lizzie Borden’s parents were ‘autopsied’ in the receiving vault of the cemetery where they were buried. These things weren’t exactly built in an era that included brilliant electric illumination, so that must have been a major surgical feat at that time. Basically, their bodies went to the grave, but their skulls went to court.
And yes, I think she did it.