The skull of J. Thomas rested in my palm. He was buried in the 1870s and my mother had just dug him up from the old pioneer cemetery that rests on the southern edge of our ranch. It’s a small ranch — 100 acres in northern Colorado, below the foothills — but it houses all sorts of evidence of lives lived long ago, including this old cemetery, including this particular past life.
This young man’s skull was caved in on one side, and he had lots of teeth and brilliant curly red hair. There was a bit of gauze on his right temple and dried blood in the hair. After more than 130 years, he was no longer resting in peace; instead, he was in our kitchen, in my hands. I was a teenager, old enough to be skeptical of this latest bizarre moment. I was used to dead animals of all sorts being dissected on the picnic table, dead rodents and snakes and canaries in the freezer. I was used to our dogs chewing up bloody deer legs in the front lawn, baby chicks and iguanas and parakeets all over the house. I was used to peacocks honking outside my bedroom window, the squeaking of guinea pigs, the mewing of eyes-still-closed kittens. I was familiar enough with life and probably familiar enough with death, and I knew also that most of this was related to my mother, whose Zorba-like zest for life included bringing home various animals, dead (a fox she found on a walk, for instance) and alive (a sudden urge to buy piglets having overcome her). Some were alive but soon-to-be-dead, some were alive but soon-accidentally-dead, some were alive-but-soon-to-disappear. I formed attachments with caution; I felt I was immune to surprise and death. So when she placed a human skull in my hand, I said something like, Ah, ma. Maybe you went too far this time. Then I raised an eyebrow, waited for the story.
Her explanation was this: The cemetery was started in 1862, and in the 1890s an irrigation ditch was dug right next to it, and now a flood was eroding the ditch banks. A small sandstone marker with "J. Thomas" chiseled in it had toppled over into the ditch, and so my mother decided to move the marker and the body it signified. She was smart about it, though: She called the local 4-H group to help, and the sheriff, and the ditch company.
She said, "So, we just dug him up, to move him. Come see the rest of him."
The old pioneer cemetery rests on a hill, and is dotted with lichen-encrusted tombstones, yucca plants and cactus. BINGHAM HILL CEMETERY, says a white wooden sign. Here are the lives lost to stillbirths, scarlet fever, whooping cough, typhoid, suicide. Over 140 people are buried here, all early settlers in the region. No one ever paid for a burial space, no one kept records, and no one is responsible for its care. My mother spent years researching and writing a book about this cemetery. Not a morbid necrology, she wrote in her introduction, but a celebration of ordinary lives. Because of her, none of the dead are just initials or letters any longer. Their barely visible, clumsily engraved names now have new meaning; they have been somewhat resurrected.
And in one case, entirely resurrected.
I followed her across the pasture and up the hill to the cemetery. Standing up there, I could see most of the ranch — the pastures where the cattle grazed, the cottonwoods that bordered the river, the horses that stood in the vee of a fence corner. And at my feet, sure enough, was a deep hole, and in it was a headless skeleton in a rotting wooden casket. His legs were covered with leather pants. They didn’t look like the chaps rodeo cowboys wear; these were tight-fitting, more like jeans. There were no boots — apparently shoes were scarce and often not buried with the body. His toe bones were inside intact wool socks. There was a short leather jacket with wide lapels around the place where his heart once beat.
I have a clear memory of standing above this body, and looking down at J. Thomas for a very long time, but I have no memory of what my heart was doing. When I try to recall my reaction, all I can conjure up is a buzz, like the way the earth buzzes on a hot summer day.
One thing I know for sure is that, after seeing J. Thomas, I started practicing what I was going to say to myself when I died, in those last few moments on earth, because I knew there wouldn’t be much chance to peruse the possibilities when that time comes.
My final conversation with myself has evolved over the years, and I update it frequently, like a will. But always it contains the same basic components: First, an "Oh!" — or some yelp of surprise — and then, "Damn!" –— because of course I’ll be furious — and then, "I’m scared." The next part I say to comfort myself: "Think of these Colorado mountains. Think of the people I love. Think of how the heart feels on a hot summer day." The image I’ll have in my mind, I think, as I say goodbye, is the view of this ranchland from this cemetery hill.
Laura Pritchett is the author of Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, and Sky Bridge. She lives in northern Colorado, near the small ranch where she was raised.