It had all the makings of a quiet, peaceful funeral. A pastor spoke. Soft music echoed through the silent Cumberland cemetery, despite the hustle and bustle of the street festival nearby.
Gatherers bowed their heads respectfully, though none in attendance knew whose life they were celebrating.
There was no way to know exactly to whom the centuries-old bones, broken and brittle, belonged. Still, they were placed in a tiny coffin Saturday and gently set in a grave on the edge of the same 1800s-era cemetery from which they were accidentally unearthed nearly 30 years ago.
Story continues below gallery
The bones were inadvertently dug up in 1988 by a construction crew working to lay a sewer line near the historic cemetery that sits in the 200 block of Munsie Street in Cumberland. Historians guess the remains could belong to as many as five people who were buried there, but there’s no way to know for sure, they say. For years, the bones were kept in a box in the basement of a local funeral home, unidentified and untouched, with no one quite sure what to do with them.
But as town officials began planning for the state’s bicentennial, a celebration honoring Hoosier history, someone started talking about those old bones. And a plan to bury them in their rightful place emerged.
They wouldn’t need a full-sized casket; a child-sized one would do for the small collection of remains, they decided. Cemetery experts mapped out the current graves, noting an open spot for the reinterment.
Saturday, interested onlookers formed a semicircle around the freshly made hole in the ground, doing their best not to disturb the delicate headstones that dotted the land around them. They watched as a few of Cumberland’s town leaders returned what had been disturbed all those years ago, restoring, at last, a final resting place.
And as a light rain patted the tent above their heads, one among them, Cumberland town historian Joni Curtis, began to cry.
She’s known about these bones for many years, she said. She’d marveled in the history of it all, wondered to whom they might belong and what they might think about Cumberland as it is today.
But when she saw them being placed in the ground for a final time, that feeling of connection to an old stranger turned to emotion.
That was somebody, she said, brushing away tears. Somebody’s friend. Somebody’s family. Somebody’s somebody.
“Someone put them there and intended for them to stay,” Curtis said. “It’s about time we put them back.”
The cemetery, which sits next to the Cumberland First Baptist Church, holds the remains of some of Cumberland’s earliest settlers, including at least eight Civil War soldiers and one veteran of the Revolutionary War.
Many of the graves in the cemetery don’t have headstones or markers, said the Rev. T. Wyatt Watkins, a leader of the Cumberland First Baptist Church who helped organize the reinterment.
Further, there are no records left about the location of the graves inside the cemetery, Watkins said. The unearthed remains were suspected to belong to as many as five Cumberland settlers, based on what bones were found, Watkins said.
Workers contacted town officials after finding the bones in 1988; the remains were examined and released by the Marion County Health Department, then handed over to Hendryx Mortuaries for safe-keeping.
Owner Tom Hendryx said he and his employees have done their best to preserve the remains, storing them high on a shelf inside the facility where they would not be disturbed. Saturday, he had the honor of sealing the bones inside their casket and replacing them in the ground.
For more than five years, Hendryx has talked with town leaders about what could be done to return the bones to the ground, he said. But planning for the reinterment ceremony took off in the last few months as the town planned its annual Cumberland Arts Goes to Market festival, he said.
This year’s event was dotted with historic undertones in honor of the Indiana Bicentennial. The reinterment was planned at the start of Saturday’s day-long festival as a salute to the past, Curtis said; the celebration ended with the burial of a time capsule, filled with notes of Cumberland residents about hopes for the town’s future.
It seemed fitting to bury the bones this year as a nod to the state’s bicentennial celebration, an ode to those who came to Cumberland all those years ago and built it from the ground up, Watkins said. He wondered aloud during the ceremony what the people buried in the cemetery that sits outside his church must have seen in their time, hundreds of years before Cumberland developed into the bustling suburb it is today.
“The people who owned these bones brought us to where we are,” Watkins said. “We are standing on their shoulders.”