On graveyard dirt, “sinners,” and working with the dead

I’m on a list dedicated to discussion of the Hyatt material, and there’s been a thread with people opining on what one informant meant by getting dirt "from the grave of a sinner."  Some believe this is shorthand for a murderer, others that it could be anyone who lived rough and probably died that way.  Some have chimed in with questions about just what the relationship between the living and the dead is when you are getting and using graveyard dirt.  I chimed in with some personal experience that I thought I would share here for a perspective on that relationship.

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I would just like to add a bit of personal experience here. My "uncle" (a more complicated blood relationship than this, but we called him Uncle when he was living) was clearly a sinner. He was considered such by the family, and by the community, and by himself. The family was Catholic — he was an unrepentant womanizer, drinker, reprobate, and layabout. (He’s buried in Pensacola and spent some time in Jacksonville, which is the location of the original post’s informant, just for giggles).

Now he never killed anybody, but he can be counted on for mischief, particularly if the mischief involves married couples or causing damage to someone’s home (he is especially good at making electrical systems go haywire). He may have changed his mind about some things post-death — I was a child when he died, so I can’t really say much except what I heard and what little I remember. But in working with him (and by that I mean his graveyard dirt), what I learned was two things. One is that he
wasn’t always like this, all unreliable and kind of famous for going as the wind blew. He got messed up in the spirit while he was living, somehow. From piecing together family stories I think it was in WWII. I know he spent a scary time alone or isolated and that he had to swim while he was hurt. He came back from the military and he never was the same. I didn’t know this when I started working with him, and I can’t prove it, but I *know* it.

Another thing is that there is some stuff I might ask some Random Non-Murdering Carouser to help me with, but won’t ask Uncle, because he won’t do it. That doesn’t mean he won’t help at all, just that he’s got a different perspective now — and heck, maybe he’s looking out for me, who knows. I"m saying all this personal stuff to say, that imo, it’s about the relationship, and about listening and paying attention, not about sending some zombie or dog after a job you have for it. I could just as easily file Uncle under "the grave of a soldier" as "the grave of a sinner," and in fact there are some rumors about some fights he got in that had really bad consequences for the other party. But he isn’t just a soldier OR a sinner; he’s him. And I think if you’re working with graveyard dirt, what you might ought to give some attention to is the fact that you’re working with *somebody,* and that somebody is not some mindless jarred commodity to let out and seal back up.

So this makes me think about the kind of train of thought that would be behind an instruction like "go get dirt from the grave of a sinner." This isn’t "end up in a city you never been before and get some random dirt." This is "go down and get some dirt from old Joe Smith, you know, that one what died when his wife’s lover shot him up." I think it’s safe to presume that many of these informants would know the circumstances of death of at least some of the folks that had been laid to rest in the last few years, or at least would have heard some stories, and in many cases may have had a family link or even a personal relationship with the deceased. So I think there is something to considering just what KIND of sinner you’re talking about, and something to considering just WHO it is, finally, you’re talking about working with. If you don’t know from your own or neighborhood memories just who is buried in your town, it’s probably a good idea to go "meet and greet" before taking up any work. I know I’m not the first one to say this, and [list owner] just said something similar probably better than me, but it
bears reiterating — pulling this stuff out of the cultural context it’s embedded in and working it from an "alien" perspective is a really bad idea, especially for the "big guns" stuff. I wouldn’t dream of working with graveyard dirt from someone not blood related to me until after I had crossed a few familial and personal bridges with the dead. Just my three copper cents.

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FYI, this thread began discussing this informant’s material: [Jacksonville, FL; Informant #598; Cylinders 771:2-776:1]

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