Tommy Baker, the filmmaker behind the documentary Facing East, sat down with me to discuss his film and the heartbreaking and infuriating events that have taken place over decades at the Eastern Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.
Referred to as “the most overcrowded’ in all of Kentucky, the Eastern Cemetery held a horrifying secret for many years, that the owners of the cemetery were selling plots, but in reality were using the same ones over and over, each time piling body on top of body. Over 100,000 people were buried this way.
Thanks to the nonprofit group Friends of Eastern Cemetery that came together to clean up the grounds, bodies were discovered and many made aware of the horrors that happened. Now, Baker wants to share the story in hopes of making the events truly known to the world.
Horror Fuel: “How did you come across the story?”
Tommy Baker: “Back in 2013 a buddy of mine ran into a guy who was doing some landscaping at the cemetery and they got to talking and he was another video person and he made the introduction to me. At that time, the non-profit group Friends of Eastern Cemetary were just sort of forming. They were interested in having some videos that they could use to promote or show people what was going on.
I went down with my camera. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. The first day I was walking around and I knew that this wasn’t going to be some quick thing I’m going to do. I knew it was a story that I was going to have to look into and see what was going on.
I didn’t really have the whole story for a long time. I don’t think anyone knows the whole story really. It took years for me to get to the nitty-gritty of what was going on. Once I got introduced to the group’s archeologist, Doctor Philip DiBlasi, who is a major voice in the documentary, that really opened things up. There was a lot of information about his investigation that wasn’t really out there publicly. Once I really started talking to him in his office at the University of Louisville I began to learn a lot. It’s crazy what happened there, you know?”
Horror Fuel: “It’s insane. When you are laid to rest, you think it will be forever, but being dug up and thrown in a grave with other bodies, that’s so disrespectful.”
Tommy Baker: “I don’t know how graphic you want to get…”
Horror Fuel: “Feel free to get as graphic as you want.”
Tommy Baker: “I think it’s eight and change burials for each gravestone. When you hear that you think it’s a coffin on top a coffin, on top a coffin, on top a coffin, but really happened is they would bury somebody, time would pass and when no one was coming to visit that grave, they would redraw the cemetery line and pull those stones and when it was the time to bury a new person they would go in with a backhoe and dig through grandma or whoever was buried there. They would just completely destroy the coffin and body and put the new one on top.
It’s a 30-acre cemetery there are about a thousand burials per acre, but we have documentation saying that there are over 130,000 burials there. It’s like 8 burials per grave.”
Horror Fuel: “Jesus. Either they were digging super deep or some of those bodies had to be right under the surface.”
Tommy Baker: “The grave digger we talked to, Bob Allen, the whistleblower, he said he would start to dig a grave and maybe he would get two or three feet deep and find remains, skulls, bone fragments, coffin handles, pieces of caskets, and he would go and get his boss. The boss would say dig it deeper and put the previous burials at the bottom and the new one on top.
They documented that one infant was less than ten inches from the surface because if they went any deeper they would hit other burials.”
Horror Fuel: “That is so messed up.”
Tommy Baker: “I’ve been there and seen bones, skulls just laying on top of the ground. They come up in the rain, animals dig them up. You can go there any time and find bones and coffin handles just scattered around.”
Horror Fuel: “That sounds like a scene from a horror movie. I imagine it is a horror to those with loved ones there.”
Tommy Baker: “Yes, it is.”
Horror Fuel: “I’m glad that this group is coming in and trying to help the situation and trying to fix things. ”
Tommy Baker: “Fixing things is probably a little too strong way of putting it. You can’t really fix anything that is going on underground. But they are keeping the grass cut and making it so that if anyone does have a loved one there that is safe to visit. When they first started working there the grass was up to their waist, there were snakes, homeless people living there. It was a dangerous place to go. They got it marked a historical site.”
Horror Fuel: “What happens to the remains laying on the surface?”
Tommy Baker: “When they do find bones they are taken to the Louisville University archeology department. The university is helping the group with that aspect.”
Horror Fuel: “So what was it that really made you want to get involved and make the documentary?”
Tommy Baker: “There are many reasons. I have to be honest, when you hear a story like this, you’re like this would make an interesting movie because it’s so fascinating. It’s just a great topic for a documentary. Also, I think it’s happened a lot of other places and there are a lot of other people out there that want to do something similar to what the Friends of Eastern Cemetery have done. I’m hoping people will see this and inspire people to go to old cemeteries and decide to help maintain them. And just to make people aware of what happened. I hope that it does bring some comfort to the family and friends of the people who are buried in the Eastern Cemetery. And to let them know what actually happened. A lot of people probably don’t really know what happened, they just know they bought a plot there and then couldn’t bury grandma. Or that they went back to visit mom and dad and couldn’t find the stone. I know the peace they deserve isn’t going to happen but at least they will know. Hopefully, they will find some comfort that there are people there now that are watching over the cemetery.”
Horror Fuel: “What happened to the horrible people that did this?”
Tommy Baker: “Absolutely nothing. There were three guys who owned the cemetery when it came under investigation. They were walked through processing, but they never spent a day in jail. They spent all of the money that was left. The money that they had in the preservation fund that is set up to cover things like cutting the grass. It’s a law in Kentucky that so much of the money from a burial has to go into a fund so that interest will pay for the upkeep. These guys just spent everything in the account on their legal fees and then walked away. Nobody did anything about it.”
Horror Fuel: “Wow!”
Tommy Baker: “Yeah. Not a day in jail, no civil suits, no reparations. There are over 5,000 people that owned plots there and can’t use them because they were already used. Thousands and thousands of people came back when the news broke and said they wanted to move their family out, that’s like three to five thousand dollars. There was no justice at all. Two of the guys have passed on. I believe that the cemetery manager Charles Alexander is still out there. We actually knocked on his door when we were doing the documentary and promptly had the door slammed in our face. In the documentary we let people know exactly who these people are and how they finagled their way out of it. Graves and cemeteries are the last holy thing left in America. A lot of people don’t really care about traditions anymore but I think everyone will agree you shouldn’t go messing with graves and cemeteries. They were burying people over and over and just hoping not to get caught.
This isn’t in the documentary, but one individual, a gravedigger, that he went to his boss and told them there were two skulls in the plot where he was supposed to be burying someone the next day and the boss told him, ‘Well, I guess it will be a tripleheader.’ That’s how callus these people were. They had no shame.
Part of it was that the individuals that were buried there were low income. They couldn’t afford to go somewhere else. They were taken advantage of during the worst times in their lives. There was even a woman working for them that was going around to hospitals and finding mothers who had stillborns or miscarriages and they were selling them graves for $75. I talked to two different women that they made a deal on parchment while they were in the hospital. The babies were buried in graves already occupied by several other individuals. In my opinion, it was very predatory.”
Horror Fuel: “Praying on people at a time like that is disgusting.”
Tommy Baker: When it hit the news everyone found out and it upset a lot of people.”
Horror Fuel: “I imagine. When will Facing East be out?”
Tommy Baker: “March 17th it will be out on digital and VOD. It’s being released by Uncork’d Entertainment.”
Horror Fuel: “Have you already moved on to your next project?”
Tommy Baker: “I have. It’s a narrative feature, This Must Be It. We’re on post-production now. It’s a fictional narrative piece about a guy who has a lot of issues, he’s recently divorced. He’s trying to reconnect with his kid. He’s pursuing his dream of writing a novel. It’s about an artist who is struggling. Until it plays at festivals we are keeping it pretty close to the vest.
Facing East premieres on March 17th, from Uncork’d Entertainment. To donate or learn more about the cemetery please visit the official Friends of Eastern Cemetary website.