Friday, February 4, 2011

2 morbid mysteries

Fisherman and photographer Scott Owens came upon an empty casket a few weeks ago in the woods near Slidell, Lousiana. “At first I thought it was junk, a refrigerator.” Reasoning that it may have been unearthed from a nearby graveyard that was flooded during Hurricane Katrina, he brought it to the attention of a local news reporter who notified authorities and aired a story about the discovery. Within a couple of days, the coroner's office determined that the grave had been flooded by a 12' to 14' surge that swamped Brookter Cemetery, a family graveyard. The woman who had once rested in the casket had been reburied without being identified, even through DNA analysis, but her casket was abandoned at the rear of the private property. Owens had succeeding in ensuring that the woman's family had not been paying their respects at an empty tomb.

Artist John Lankenau found a gravestone a few years ago on the streets of New York City. It was leaning against a fire hydrant in Manhattan on East Fourth St. between Avenues C and D, and he was afraid it would be defiled by a dog lifting its leg (he was walking his own at the time). “It once meant something to somebody. I just couldn’t imagine someone’s life sitting on the street.” Although it was 2 1/2' tall and weighed several hundred pounds, he carted it home for safekeeping. Besides the name of the deceased and the date of death, most of the writing on the tombstone was in Hebrew. Over the years, Lankenau canvassed local synagogues, called Jewish genealogical societies, and even ordered a copy of a likely birth certificate, but to no avail. The details of her life were finally pieced together by a New York Times reporter, the city's records commissioner, and a genealogist. Hinda Amchanitzky was a widow who had emigrated from Russia c. 1895 and had died in New York in 1910 at age 60. The stone, however, had never marked her grave at the local United Hebrew Community, although there are now plans to install it. It had been removed from a nearby building that once contained a monument maker’s workshop. Artist Andrew Castrucci found it and deliberately propped it up outside the townhouse - which housed an artists' collective, a burial society, and a small synagogue for Ukrainian immigrants - owned by fellow artist Dorothea Tyler and her husband. “It was late at night, and I put it in front of Dorothea’s building as a surprise.” But the biggest surprise is that the woman commemorated on the stone wrote the 1st book of Yiddish recipes to be published in America. “It’s so cool that I would find the stone of a woman who wrote a cookbook,” said Lankenau, who is himself a part-time cook.

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