David Young, IM 63, has spent three decades cleaning up an abandoned historic cemetery in Chattanooga, Tenn. He works almost entirely alone, without help or publicity. He knows the work will outlive him—and he fears it will be what kills him. What keeps him going?
In ancient Greece, the story goes, there lived a man named Sisyphus—a powerful man, the founder and king of Corinth—who was so proud that he spurned the gods and tried to cheat death. For these transgressions, he was punished, banished to the underworld and made for all eternity to roll a boulder up a hill, reach the summit, watch the rock crash all the way back down, follow it, then start all over again.
Here is another man, in another time, another world. David Young is not overly proud and he is certainly no king. But he too once stood at the bottom of a hill, looked up at the summit and saw his fate—his own land of the dead, the crumbling, overgrown cemetery that he has shouldered all responsibility for over the last three decades and counting.
Like Sisyphus, David toils alone; unlike the punished man, David’s burden was a choice. Yet no explanation of his devotion seems to suffice. He values the cemetery’s history, enjoys the feeling of working hard without hope of reward or recognition, thrives on the structure and sense of purpose it gives his life—yes, all these things are true.
But he has committed himself to the cemetery so fully, it is as if the cemetery owns him, as if his actions are nudged along by some force much greater than mere human motives. There is something else at play, that unknown element complicit when a person commits to an act beyond standard human kindness—that mystery of service, the ineffable arithmetic of someone giving and giving and giving of themselves until they are both nearly gone and, somehow, even more fully alive.
David H. Young III is 71 years old, thin-framed; he used to be all right angles, but time has rounded most of his corners, and there’s a hunch to his shoulders that suggests he’s perpetually shrugging something away, a worry or a compliment or a question too big to answer. His hair, once nearly black, has finally decided it’s time to turn gray, though his brows are holding out, almost as dark as when he was a boy.
He grew up in Georgia, Macon and Rockmart. His father was a Tech alum, an insurance agent and a smalltime farmer; his mother, an Agnes Scott graduate, helped her husband with his business. David was sent up to the Darlington School in Rome, then graduated with a degree in industrial management from Georgia Tech in 1963. He met a girl in college—Barbara, another Scottie—and, once he’d paid his dues to Uncle Sam, he came back home and married her. Barbara found a job up in Chattanooga, and he enrolled in the accounting program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; they bought a little white house in Chattanooga’s Shepherd Hills neighborhood, settled in, never left.
They bought the house for the closets—Barbara required closets—but the backyard was nice, too, a green lawn stretching out then ascending in a series of terraces, like an amphitheater. David kept it tidy, tended to the whole swath of it right up to the chain-link fence that marked the back property line. Every so often he’d climb the stair-stepped slope and do battle with the ivy and weeds that never stopped seeping through the fence from the wooded lot beyond.
Standing in his dining room, looking out his big picture window and up at that beautiful backyard, he could see points of a wrought-iron gate and gray crests of tombstones among the dark tangle of vines and trees at the top of the hill.
He knew about the cemetery when he and Barbara bought the house—knew it was up there, at least. The neighbors didn’t talk about it much, but he picked up things here and there: It was an African-American cemetery, founded in the 1890s and named Pleasant Garden, effectively abandoned for years. Some of the most prominent members of Chattanooga’s post-Reconstruction black community had been buried there, and some of the poorest. There had been money troubles among the owners’ families years ago, and someone’s great-grandsomething had come into possession of the place but didn’t seem to want to bother with it anymore.
By the time the Youngs moved in, bungalows and cottages like their own lined the cemetery on three sides, dozens of tidy lawns abutting its dark tangle.
In time, David began to work his way up the hill, hacking at the reaching fingers of brush and vine, chopping and whacking and uprooting. At first it was retaliation, a prolonged defensive strike to maintain the sovereignty of his own land. But then he pressed farther and farther into the cemetery, farther from his little white house, and it became something else. He was carving out his own paths, dragging away his own debris, uncovering earth—and graves—that hadn’t seen the light of day for decades.
The place was a wreck, what little he could see of it. Cracked and crumbling tombstones lay scattered around as if they had been back-swiped by a god’s impudent hand. David thought about the history there, the graves bearing the names of black men who’d become synonymous with the horrors of racism and injustice: Ed Johnson, falsely convicted of raping a white woman and lynched off Chattanooga’s Walnut Street Bridge in 1906 by a white mob, his case the subject of legal precedents and books and plays; Andrew and LeRoy Wright, two of the nine “Scottsboro Boys” falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931.
David thought about his boyhood in Macon and Rockmart in the 1940s and 1950s, the depths of the segregated South; he thought about the black housekeepers and nannies who raised him, and he thought about all these marked and unmarked graves of all these other women and men who worked for so many other white families without fair compensation or full rights.
He thought about the hundreds and hundreds of other men and women and children buried there, their stories unknown, their graves inaccessible to anyone who might be left to care.
So David bought a mattock, a chainsaw, a spray-pump and gallons of weed-killer. He bought a Gator utility vehicle to help with the uprooting and the hauling. Work got in the way, sometimes—his real job, that is, as vice president of finance for a conglomeration of local companies—but by the time he retired, in 2000, clearing the cemetery had become his primary occupation.
He calls it “clearing,” as if he was talking about stacking up plates and wiping crumbs from the table after dinner. But that’s like saying Sisyphus was bowling. This was labor; his body ached at the end of the day. Once enough overgrowth was gone, the sun shone down on him, baked his skin under strata of dirt and sweat.
This cemetery, Pleasant Garden, was not the first to fall under David Young’s care. In the late 1950s, when he was a teenager, his parents and uncle had founded a burial ground in Rockmart; they later sold it to a private company, but for a time David was tasked as its part-time caretaker. He kept the place mowed, earned a little money, hated most every minute of it. But it taught him to work.
When he began to clear Pleasant Garden, he didn’t tell his friends what he was doing. He didn’t tell anyone. For a while, anytime David saw someone walking in the cemetery or a car driving around on the barely cleared roads, he would hide. He would scurry back down the hill, back down to his little white house. He’s not a big people person anyway—sort of a loner, he says—but he was nervous about trespassing and about how he’d be perceived as a white man in a black cemetery. Only when it seemed safe would he emerge again.
When Barbara developed Alzheimer’s he became nervous to leave her alone in the little white house, so he would take her up to the cemetery with him. He would sit her down in a chair near where he was clearing, keep an eye on her as he hacked away at arm-thick vines and dragged rotten branches from the graves. But soon it became too much for her—it scared her, the darkness of the place, the tumbled tombstones all around, who knows what lurking in the thick brush. He hated leaving her unattended at home, but he’d steal away sometimes anyway.
Barbara died a few springs ago. David buried his wife in one cemetery and came home to bury himself in another.
His days always go a certain way. He wakes up around 4:30 a.m. Breakfast is bacon and eggs, every morning. He cooks for himself and takes it slow. By 7:30 or 8 he’s up in the cemetery, where he works until 11 or so. Lunch is almost always at the Mountain City Club, over the ridge in downtown Chattanooga. Sometimes he’ll go with a friend to a place across the river called Food Works, where the waitress teases him for always getting the salmon. “It’s healthy,” he says. “You’re in a rut,” she says. After lunch he takes a nap but is back to work around 3 p.m., usually until 5 or so. In the evenings after dinner he reads—historical fiction, something light—or watches the news. He goes to bed early. He sleeps. He wakes up. He does it again.
Up in the cemetery, he picks out a particular tree or a large headstone sitting way off in the brackish growth and he clears his way toward it. He loathes the mimosa, the vinca, the sumac, the kudzu, the ivy. He battles with it, rips it root from root, sprays it with poison, slices down saplings before they have a chance to spread their seed, hacks their stumps into a pulp with his mattock. He drags the underbrush into piles that sometimes grow twice his height, as wide as a house.
Once he set his sights on a 15-foot-tall obelisk headstone installed at the hill’s highest point. When he reached the obelisk after weeks of clearing he found it wasn’t a grave-marker at all, but a monument to the cemetery’s founders. Their names were etched in the brown stone, the sharp edges grown dull with time.
Sometimes David will tend to a certain grave just because he likes the design of its marker or because he feels a fondness for the name. He once found an especially stately tombstone, a big one marking a plot for a family called Young. He paid that one special care—cleared the land around it, pushed the dirt and the leaves away, made a place for it in the world again.
Some days he thinks more about cataloguing the cemetery than clearing it. He has an incomplete roster from an archivist in town listing around 580 names and death dates; he has personally recorded the names and locations of about 900 graves, but only 160 or so of those are on the roster. He suspects his catalog amounts to about 40 or 45 percent of the total number buried there, but it’s hard to be sure. No natural order of things presents itself. Some plots are organized in grids, but they’re catty-corner to other grids, and in some sections there’s no pattern at all, the tombstones scattered out in haphazard constellations, many far from the graves they once marked. He has a friend who takes photos, and together they’ve been trying to make a full catalog, geo-tagging the graves to make it easier—to make it possible—to find them again, though he knows there’s some they’ll never find.
One of David’s neighbors grew up in the area and told him when she was a girl she’d steal up to the cemetery and watch the burials. The hearse would drive in, the casket would be lowered, prayers said, mourners led away—then sometimes the funeral home folks would remove the body from the casket, install the deceased straight into the grave, and whisk the box away for another poor soul. The bodies became the earth, and the earth begat the weeds, the trees, the vines that grew to smother their tombstones, choke their memories, burying them again and again.
Those graves are all sunken now, pitting the scathed landscape in eerie undulations. They often appear in groups, in rows of three or four or five, the poor exiled even in death. Most of the sunken graves are unmarked, but many of the marked graves are sunken, too. Their tombstones, loosed from the earth and heavy with moss, have fallen into the graves and lie face down, as if in supplication.
David tries not to walk in the graves. In some places it’s hard not to, the ground a treacherous grid of wet leaves and moss framing sunken, fecund pits. He knows it’s easier to step into a grave than it is to step out of one.
He can so easily imagine falling and breaking his leg up there, slicing himself with his own blade, pulling a rotten tree limb down on his skull. He works alone. He knows the dangers. He stops when he feels tired.
There’s a certain satisfaction in the end of a day, something concrete and inarguable—that pile of brush moved from here to there, that sapling hacked from its roots, that headstone soaking up sunlight for the first time in years. He takes that pleasure when he can. He knows it will not last.
Seventeen acres—that’s how big the cemetery is. And in 30 years David guesses he’s cleared about 60 percent of it. He doesn’t have another 30 years, he knows, but even if he did, he would never be done. The vines never stop creeping, the ivy never stops snaking, the saplings never stop shoving their way up through the hard-packed earth. These days he spends half his time clearing land he’s already cleared, just to maintain stasis. He’s exhausted. But nature does not care.
At the end of every day, David is Sisyphus at the top of his hill, his work done but not for long, watching his boulder crash back down to earth before following it.
David Young is the tail end of his family. He and Barbara had no children; their parents are dead, their siblings are dead. He reads obituaries with increasing interest—cause of death? how old?—as if he might discern from them how much time he has left.
When he dies, he knows what will happen, or at least what he wants to happen: He’ll be buried down in Rockmart alongside Barbara and his parents and his grandparents in the cemetery his family built. His memorial plaque is already there, just waiting for a death date.
His Navy service means he’s eligible to be buried in a national cemetery, and he wonders if he should take that chance, trade the company of family for guaranteed maintenance. He knows how easy it is for things to be let go.
He wonders, too, when he dies, how will anyone know? Who would even know to run an obituary? If he died in the little white house, if he died up the hill—how would anyone know?
And if he’s not there to take care of the cemetery, who will be?
A few others have shown interest over the years. Once some Boy Scouts dragged piles of limbs onto a stretch of driveway David had just spent hours clearing, then stuck little American flags into the graves they uncovered. The flags are still out there, blown from their posts, frayed and faded. A man named LaFrederick Thirkill, a local elementary school principal, has had some luck rallying Chattanooga’s black community for the occasional workday, tending mostly to the cemetery entrance, which David usually keeps overgrown to deter casual traffic.
But the chaos of the cemetery is so vast, David has never seen them, has never heard a peep, never laid eyes on the results of their labor before the ruthless tangle covered itself again.
This summer David met a new family moving in down the street, a couple with a new baby. They’re excited about raising their son by the cemetery—all that green space, the walking paths and the trees. David suggested to the husband that maybe he could help him work up there sometime. The man seemed amenable. David thinks maybe this man will be the one to take over his clearing. He hopes, at least. But who knows.
The answers aren’t the hard part—it’s all these questions. Sisyphus was a lucky man in this regard. At least no one ever asked him why. At least he knew how he’d be spending eternity.
David heard that people used to picnic up in the cemetery on Sundays, that it was a beautiful place, more like a little park, but he couldn’t imagine it until he began to see concrete benches and birdbaths among the overgrowth, little sitting areas terraced like his own backyard. The grass had been green here once, too, and rolling like a carpet.
Cemeteries aren’t built for the dead; they’re built for the living.
Those inscriptions on the tombstones—“In Memory,” “Rest in Peace”—are as much wishes for the departed as they are implied contracts with those left behind. But promises etched in stone can still be broken. “Gone but not Forgotten,” some of the headstones say, and at times David feels like he’s the only reason that’s still true. The more he clears, though, the more he sees fresh flowers, or at least fresh silk flowers, left on graves. That means people are coming, that they’re finding what, or who, they’re looking for. They are paying their respects, making their peace.
David doesn’t hide from visitors anymore, his reticence outweighed by a mounting desire to make sure people know who he is and what he’s doing. He has talked to newspaper reporters and local TV cameras as word of his work slowly spread around town. Sometimes visitors recognize him, approach him, call him by name.
Once, just before Christmas in 2010, David saw a beautiful black SUV parked inside the cemetery. It was a giant thing, shining like onyx, undeterred by the scraggly limbs hanging over the driveway. The SUV came bearing Lionel Richie, the singer, taping an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, an NBC show that played matchmaker with celebrities and their unknown ancestors. Richie had a grandfather buried in the cemetery. When the time seemed right David approached the star’s tour bus, parked down the street from his little white house. He saw Lionel—David calls him Lionel now—speaking with Thirkill, who was acting as tour guide. Thirkill saw David, turned and pointed Lionel toward him. The singer broke away from the conversation, strode towards David, wrapped him in a bear hug, told him thank you.
On the show, Lionel walked through the cemetery with the cameras but could not find his grandfather’s grave. He learned that his grandfather, Lewis Brown, was not only buried in the cemetery, he had also once been its caretaker. He had borne this burden, too—the relentless growth, the trees, the vines; the boulder, the hill.
Once David was working up around the obelisk when he saw a black sedan parked on the driveway. A middle-aged black couple, a woman and a man, were walking around through the graves. They saw him and he greeted them, asked if they had family buried there.
“Don’t think so—do you?” the man said. David sensed an edge in his voice.
“No,” David said.
“What are you doing up here?” the man asked. David pointed to one of the brush piles. “You the one doing this?” the man asked.
“Any chance y’all are here to help?” David replied.
“Why don’t you ask the owner?” the man said.
“Is the owner here?” David asked, not expecting the man to point down the driveway, toward a patch of recently-cleared graves. There was another man—older, also black, graying and distinguished. David approached him down the path, introduced himself, asked if he had any plans for the cemetery. The owner said no. David asked if it was all right for him to be there, to do his work. The owner said yes.
The owner had come there to visit a family plot, to find a particular headstone. “Were you able to find it?” David asked, and the owner said yes. He pointed a few yards away, pointed to that headstone David had cleared around just for bearing his own last name. And so there they stood, two old Young men in the land of the dead.
It was a rainy summer, and the weather combined with a sprained ankle kept David inside more days than he would’ve preferred. He doesn’t like to be all cooped up in the little white house while the cemetery grows back over itself.
When David falls into a state like this, he makes himself polish the silver. His grandmother collected it, Barbara’s grandmother too. Most of it is stored down in the basement, packed away from the elements, but the platters and the flatware and the candelabra on display in the dining room demand a thorough cleaning every few months.
The process is tedious—grinding the rag and the paste into all the nooks and crannies, all the bevels and the filigrees—but he’s been doing it since years ago when Barbara announced she’d had enough.
He could give it up, he knows. He could give it all up. He could just decide to let the sulfide have its way, let it work itself deep into the soft metal, sour the bright surfaces with its dull gray blight. He could decide to never again set foot in that cemetery. He could let nature have its way, let the vines and the trees feed on earth soaked and rich from the hot summer rain. It wouldn’t take long for the place to look just as it did when he first saw it 30 years ago. Inertia, negligence, decay—it’s all so easy. All it requires is nothing.
But David Young has the time, now, and the hands, and the strength. And he feels that tug, that feeling rushing in from who knows where that’s harder to fight than to obey. Maybe he chose this burden, or maybe it chose him; at some point the distinction becomes irrelevant. The cemetery, the silver, the little white house, his own body—it will all be someone else’s problem one day. But, for now, it’s his.
And when the rain stops falling and the sun returns and his ankle heals, he pulls on his boots, he steps outside and he climbs up the hill once more.