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On Remote Island, The Dead Are Buried Far And Wide

Grindstone Island's lone public dock is just three miles north of the U.S. mainland, a straight shot by powerboat across the St. Lawrence River from Clayton, N.Y. Part of the Thousand Islands, Grindstone Island sits in a waterway shared by the U.S. and Canada.

Ken Deedy has owned a summer cabin on the island since 1964. On a recent tour, he is joined by another summertime resident, 19-year-old Jack Grobe. Despite their age difference, the two share a deep love of the island and its history. Grindstone is indeed a beautiful, rugged island: 15 square miles of thick forests, deep wetlands, and farms.

Deedy says there are only about 130 households on the island, which has no bridge or ferry service. In the past, wealthy summer residents would leave on their own boats at the end of the season. Many of the poorer residents would have to wait until the water froze over, so they could walk back across to the mainland.

"About eight people stay here year-round," Deedy says. "It's a very tough life."

Perhaps it's the remoteness of the island, or just the spirit of the place, that has led to a certain laissez-faire attitude to burial habits. Deedy points to his map of Grindstone and says he doesn't quite know how many cemeteries there are on the island.

"Every star that I put on the map is a cemetery, that I'm aware of anyway," he says. "Three, six, eight — not counting the guy who's planted outside my guest house," he says with a laugh.

"Those are just cemeteries that we're aware of," Grobe adds.

Deedy nods to a small grove of oak and maple trees next to his guesthouse, where lie the remains of his aunt's 84-year-old boyfriend, who loved the island and wanted to be buried there.

"I got myself a shovel, dug a hole, and filled it, and put a rock on top of it — local granite. It's not engraved or anything. And then when I told my nephew, who was about 23 at the time, he got really upset and took a tape measure, to see how far it was from his bed."

Touring the island with Deedy and Grobe, the main mode of transportation is all-terrain vehicles. You can see where remains are marked with just a simple rock, a lilac tree, or a piece of the beautiful pink granite that's pervasive on this island.

Each one is distinctly different from the other. Grobe says people on Grindstone learned long ago to take responsibility when their loved ones die.

"There was no official cemetery," Grobe says. "It wasn't like, 'My old grandma died — we better take her to the cemetery. It was, 'Grandma died — well, where are we going to put her on the farm?' "

Deedy says many of the graves hold the remains of only one person and are "private" cemeteries. But he's not certain they're legal. "You know, I just don't know; I don't ask questions like that," he says. And laughing, he adds, "Are you allowed to? Who cares?"

There is one small official cemetery on Grindstone Island, with tended lawns and proper headstones. But Deedy and Grobe say there are probably hundreds of people buried on Grindstone that no one knows about. Others are communal plots.

One is what Deedy and others call "the Civil War cemetery."

It isn't an official military cemetery; in fact, it's a remote community plot that holds some Civil War veterans. Sitting on a slight hill, the cemetery includes about a dozen small white crosses, often planted next to rocks.

Grobe says the site was neglected for many years. Just 10 or 15 years ago, no one knew what was here. But now residents maintain it. And that's led to some surprises.

"Right now we're heading over to a thicket with a grave I was not aware of," Grobe says. "Oh — 1864!" he exclaims.

"I didn't know about this, this must've been overgrown," Deedy says.

"This is a new grave," Grobe says.

"This was probably obscured by this honeysuckle, which is an invasive tree," Deedy says, "and it's been recently cleared out. But this is one of the Civil War dead."

Perhaps one of the most special cemeteries on Grindstone Island is in a small clearing on one of the highest spots on the island. Four oak Adirondack chairs sit between oak and pine trees, overlooking the fields leading to the St. Lawrence River.

The luscious scent of milkweed drifts through the area. The site belongs to Imogene Augsbury; two of her husbands are buried here, as are her parents. Another stone marks her son's remains. Augsbury says she loves to sit and meditate at her cemetery.

"We love to walk up here and sit, just look at the view on a beautiful day," she says.

Even at his tender age, Grobe says that when his time is up, he also wants to be buried on Grindstone.

"It's a beautiful area, and it's the place where I've had some of the best experiences of my life," he says. "So I think if little bits of me are going to sit for thousands of years, I'd want them to sit here."

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Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, politics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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