• Wendy Moxley Roe

The "Ghost" of Dunbar Cemetery

While researching I read a lot of old newspaper articles. Often I am distracted by the other headline stories screaming their headlines across the page. Occasionally one of the stories turns out to be gold and too good not to share.

This particular article is one of those feel good stories that gives a glimpse into a time past. The focus is the story of Joe Brown, longtime caretaker of Grandview Memorial Park Cemetery in Dunbar, West Virginia. He talks about some of the more memorable moments he had through his career as a cemetery caretaker in simpler time before modern thinking and technology.

By Charles Conner

Charleston Daily Mail

Charleston , WV


It was one of Last Summer's hottest days and Joe Brown, caretaker for Grandview Memorial park in Dunbar, lay down underneath a tree to rest a bit after eating his lunch. Joe had been busy all morning trimming shrubs and cutting the grass.

Off in the distance, he heard several boys making their way up the road leading into the cemetery. One of them, like so many boys who've trod through cemeteries, asked his companions: "What would you do if you saw someone coming up out of a grave over there?"

The other boys speculated and hazarded many answers. "Oh, I'm not scared of no ghost." one brave lad asserted, "I'd just laugh and not pay any attention to it. "

"What if it chased you though?" his pal asked. "What are you, a scaredy cat?" asked the brave boy.

"I'd chase it right back, that's what."

The boys shuffled on, unaware that the caretaker lay prone on the ground at the top of the hill crest which they approached.

Slowly, Joe raised himself up, his pearly white teeth gleaming as he looked down on the boys.

"YEOW , lookit there!" screamed one boy. "Look coming out of the ground...."

For all Joe Brown knows, the boys may be running yet.

"Yes sir, they took off like scalded cats." he laughed as he recalled the incident the other day. "I didn't mean to give them such a start, just wanted to see if they'd mistake me for a ghost. Best laugh I've had since I've been here and there aren't many laughs in my business.

Joe's business as caretaker includes gravedigging, most of which he confines to daylight hours.

"No sir. I don't believe in no ghosts, either." the 68-year-old Negro states, "but there's no use hanging round any cemetery after dark."

A WIDELY-known figure in West Dunbar, Joe lives in a neat, white cottage on his own 2 1/2- acres of land. Behind his house he has an apple orchard which he throws open to Charleston-area picnic and church grounds during the summer.

He knows his Bible, backwards , too, although he says hes only read it through but once. "Such a powerful book, though, a body can't forget what he once read in it." He explains. all his neighbors look to him as arbiter of any Biblical questions which arise. And his good naturedness and hard work have brought him a wide reputation as an excellent handy man. L. F. (Curly) Poffenbarger, the lawyer, and Dr. L. A. Jarrett, Dunbar physician, both know Joe as a fine yard man to have around in the summertime.

FOR THE most part, though, Joe, is known as a gravedigger a distinction not many people can claim. It's not generally known, either, but gravediggers take a terrific kidding. Joe is constantly ribbed by W. H. Gillespie, cemetery superintendent, at the end of a working day.

"Well, Joe did you get along all right today? These people up in the cemetery didn't bother you, did they?" he always asks. "No, Sir, they's the finest people I ever did work with, " Joe Kids right back. "They don't never give me no trouble at all." And that's one reason Joe likes his work.

He does admit to a slight superstition, though. He never accepts his money, $12.50, for opening and closing a grave until all of his work is finished.

"Who knows where the grim reaper will strike next?" he points out philosophically.

And, one time, he was just about finished his job of digging when the earth caved in on his five foot deep trench, almost trapping him. That Scared him plenty because "what man wants to dig his own grave" he asked friends the next day. A logical point, too.

Joe born of parents who had been slaves in Franklin County, VA came to McDowell County in West Virginia at 17 years of age and worked in the coalmines for years before he moved to Dunbar and became caretaker for Grandview Memorial park, a job he's held since 1942.

This past September, he decided he'd go back to his home place and see his only living relative, a sister. He hadn't been home for 43 years.

"I talked about flying over to ole' Virginny for six months, after reading in your paper how easy a way it is to get there. Finally I got up enough nerve to go up to Kanawha airport and got on one of them airliners." he said

"Well sir, I get on and looked around. There was lots of other people. We got into the air and I looked around again and everyone was reading or sleeping and didn't seem worried one bit, so I said, "Look here, Joe, if all these people are happy about flying, why not you? Fifty-three minutes later, we landed in Roanoke and I was sitting on the front porch talking to my sister two

hours after I left Charleston." As he sees it, that trip by air is the highlight in his life. Joe, who says he never allows himself to meet a stranger, can make ends meet when business is slack. He has enough outside jobs to make a living and he wants Dunbar people to remember that.

"Yes sir, " Says Joe, "I'd rather see them healthy, wealthy and alive."

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