The population of Orange County is about 38,000, but that doesn’t include the 6,000 to 7,000 people buried in Graham Cemetery. They lie beneath the sloping land you pass on the right as you drive past Preddy Funeral Home on Route 20 and head out of Orange.
The stones stretch out row upon row and include the recently deceased along with people who lived and died as far back as the 1800s. Among the dead are more than 200 Confederate soldiers, including some unidentified soldiers laid to rest in trench graves, according to cemetery trustee Tom Landis.
Most of the gravestones are granite, but some are marble. There are family plots surrounded by wrought-iron fencing, a few tall monuments and a high-flying Confederate flag. One headstone bears the logo of the University of Virginia Cavaliers; another features an uncanny photographic likeness of the deceased.
Mixed in with the grand tributes are several graves marked with simple wooden crosses, the dead person’s name and dates carved into the wood. There are plenty of artificial flower arrangements, some of them toppled over. At the base of a little boy’s grave, a line of toy vehicles stands in for flowers.
The non-profit Graham Cemetery Association owns and operates the 10-acre graveyard. There is space for over 10,000 gravesites altogether. Although most of the graves are grouped in fairly close proximity, a new section is still sparsely populated.
Landis said a gravesite at Graham can accommodate two burials, side by side. As an alternative, one side could hold a casket and the other, two cremation urns.
Although a “double burial,” with one casket stacked on top of another, is an option, Landis said he discourages that because digging an extra-deep grave may not be cost-effective.
“If you hit a big rock, you’re going to have to pay somebody to jackhammer the rock out,” he explained.
Landis works out of the office on the lower level of the cemetery caretaker’s house. Behind his desk there is a faded, handwritten chart that takes up most of the wall. It is divided into sections pinpointing the areas where bodies are buried.
These records have been digitized, and nearly 5,000 of them are accessible to the public on a website called Findagrave.com. But when Landis wants to find someone, he swivels around in his chair and runs a finger down a long list of names. He might also consult a thick, well-thumbed booklet containing the names and locations of everybody buried at Graham since 1994.
Wearing a camo hat, t-shirt and shorts on a recent summer day, Landis is gruff, forthright and completely dedicated to Graham Cemetery.
A 1964 graduate of Orange County High School, he spent the bulk of his career working for Virginia Department of Transportation in Culpeper. He also has worked at engraving tombstones.
“I got a lot of friends buried here I went to school with,” he said, narrowing his eyes as he scanned the cemetery on a radiantly sunny morning.
It makes Landis mad that the Review has received complaints about the upkeep at Graham.
“Every one of these stones in this cemetery is the responsibility of the family, not the cemetery,” he said.
He has a ready explanation for lopsided and fallen headstones. If the foundation of a stone is tilted even a tiny bit, the upright part, called the die, may eventually slide right off, even though it was originally affixed to the base with a setting compound. And very old stones may not have foundations at all. They, too, are subject to tilting and toppling.
There are other reasons for fallen stones. On at least one occasion, a deer ran through Graham and knocked one over, and groundhog holes around the graves can undermine their bases.
With a note of grim admiration in his voice, Landis said Graham Cemetery has “groundhogs big enough to put a saddle on and ride.”
As for gravesites where the ground is not level, Landis explained that a vault keeping a casket securely in place would prevent this problem. He said most recent burials have included vaults, but they aren’t required.
Stone maintenance falls to the family members of the men, women and children buried at Graham. However, cemetery trustees Mike and May Saxton said they and other volunteers make periodic trips to the cemetery for the express purpose of righting fallen stones as best they can.
Landis and the Saxtons are especially concerned about complaints that graves have been left covered only with plywood.
Mike Saxton explained that the local funeral homes typically send out their gravediggers well in advance of a burial service. They want to avoid foul weather and have enough time to prepare the site before the interment. “They are required to cover these sites with wood for safety reasons,” he added.
A common complaint heard by Graham Cemetery caretaker Jamie Deane concerns high grass. He points out that with 10 acres to mow and a great many stones to avoid nicking with his mower and his weed-trimmer, it takes him two weeks to make the rounds of the whole property.
Deane, 35, is a guitarist with a couple of area bands. He took the caretaker job at Graham Cemetery because he wanted to work largely in solitude: “I thought it would be a nice, solitary experience.”
You might think a graveyard would be tough to beat in that respect, but Deane said he is the object of verbal abuse roughly three times a week.
One time, a woman leaped out of her car and yelled at him, “Where the [expletive deleted] are my flowers!”
Deane had no idea.
“When the wind comes through, flower arrangements that are not totally secured will blow away,” he said. “I don’t know where they’re going to go.”
Not everyone who visits the cemetery is rude to Deane. He has earned the affection of a woman who comes to Graham Cemetery each morning to pray at her husband’s grave. He said one day she called out to him, “Honey, you do such a great job. Can I go to the Speedway and buy you a soft drink?”
Deane declined the offer but appreciated the sentiment.
“It’s not all bad,” he said gazing out at the cemetery before getting back to the chore of mowing grass.
You don’t need a personal connection to Graham to visit the (usually) tranquil cemetery. A walk among the graves offers fascinating bits of local family history. And the gates are always open.
“We don’t keep them locked,” Landis explained, “because people are dying to get in here.”