Stephen Lewis: Bodies in backyard cause for novel speculation

Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael StumpStephen Lewis.

Last September, the residents of Old Mission Peninsula were buzzing about the human bones turned up by a worker cultivating the soil of a vineyard behind the historical general store down the road from the Dougherty House restoration. The preliminary assessment of the bones was that the dead individual entered the ground at least 100 years ago.

Such a find naturally sparked speculation that the individual had been murdered. Why else would a body be lying in an unmarked grave? As a writer who has published a number of murder mystery novels, a genre that demands that there be a dead body and some uncertainty as to how that life ended, I certainly understand the temptation to think in that direction concerning this recent discovery.

A recent Record-Eagle article reporting on further research states that the bones belonged to a woman and moreover that the skeletal remains of a young child were also found. Could there have been long ago in quiet Old Mission a sensational double homicide, arising out of a tangled web of domestic passion, motivated by lust, greed, rage, jealousy?

Perhaps. But if I take off my murder mystery writer hat, I see a far more mundane and plausible way to think about these bones. Apparently among the bones were the remains of a wooden coffin. Most murderers don’t take such care disposing of their victims. It is likely, therefore, that this individual was buried by her family, a practice commonplace enough in rural areas a century or more ago. Two examples, one literary and one physical, support that more likely hypothesis.

“Home Burial” published by Robert Frost in 1915 dramatizes what surely must have been a commonplace occurrence particularly in farm country: a husband and wife burying their baby in their backyard, so close to the house that the grave would be clearly visible from a window. The poem describes the burial in that place as perfectly normal and focuses instead on the different ways the husband and wife react to it.

She stares out of the window at the freshly dug grave among the tombstones of other family members. She has watched him dig the grave as he would any farm chore. She grieves openly; he works out his grief in intense physical labor. She accuses him of not caring and will not let him speak about their loss. They can find no common ground, and the poem ends with no resolution. The unmediated home burial drives this couple apart.

I saw such a family graveyard in a most unusual setting on Long Island, New York near where I once lived. In a parking lot in front of a big box store there was, and likely still is, a wrought iron fence surrounding a number of graves, in the middle of which, as I recall, there was one old tree. The area had been farm country before it became yet another suburb of the city some 50 or so miles to the west. For some — no doubt legal — reason, the store could not have the graves removed so there they are among the shoppers’ cars, no doubt ignored by those toting their purchases to their vehicles.

So striking was that scene to me that I wrote both a ghost story and a poem based on it.

As for the Old Mission bones, further research might tell us to whom they belonged. In the meantime, maybe I will take the absence of a tombstone as an invitation to mix up the ingredients of a passion cocktail to reveal how two bodies, perhaps mother and daughter, came to be secretly buried in what had been some family’s backyard.

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include two mysteries set in northern Michigan.