COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Ask a neighbor or friend how they feel about cemeteries, and you will likely get an answer. Cemeteries make many people uncomfortable.
You are about to meet a man who relishes the time he spends among the dead.
Len Strozier, a 67-year-old Fortson man, owns a business that maps cemeteries across the country.
It takes him into places others shun. And he finds peace and even energy in places where others go for eternal rest.
“Welcome to my home,” he said, arms outstretched standing in Columbus’ historic Linwood Cemetery last week. “I have mapped cemeteries in 22 states all the way up to North Dakota, 72 miles from the Canadian border.”
Len Strozier has pushed his Ground Penetrating Radar system over hundreds of miles in more than 300 cemeteries.
“I have just about walked the tread off these tires,” he said as he readied his machine for a demonstration.
For more than 15 years, he and his machine have been telling stories that have been buried – sometimes by time, sometimes by circumstance, and sometimes by neglect.
What he’s looking for is unmarked graves and spaces that even the cemetery management doesn’t know might be available space.
He can tell you if the body was buried in a wood or metal casket, if there was a vault or if the burial was just in a shroud.
“So, as the body decomposes or the casket decomposes, the ground above it calcifies or hardens and it leaves an air pocket,” said Strozier, president, CEO Omega Mapping Services. “I can find that air pocket. And I can measure that air pocket head to toe and determine if it was an adult or a child.”
There is also some theology in Strozier’s work. And that’s fitting because he’s a retired Baptist minister. He recently walked a slice of historic Linwood Cemetery in Columbus to demonstrate his craft.
“If you notice in this cemetery, the burials are pretty close to being east, west,” he said. “And there is a theological reason for that. … You see we are almost perfectly east, west. East is perfect with this road. East, west. Theologically, Jesus says his disciples will rise to meet him in the Eastern sky. So many of the cemeteries, not all of them, not every burial in every cemetery, but most of the older burials are from west to east for that theological reason. Most of the time I am going to scan west to east, if I can. So, my machine will be on that air pocket as long as possible.”
Strozier calls cemeteries dynamic places and says the stories go far deeper than the stones on the surface.
“The answer is short and long. The short answer is yes,” he said. “What you are looking at right now in this cemetery is a dynamic place. It is not static. It is not just a place of the dead. It is also a place of the living. Every burial in this cemetery, every single burial, has a story behind it. And it will take a genealogist or a member of that family to give you that story.”
His job and his faith allow him to hear those stories.
“As I am walking through, I am able to hear that story,” he said. “Not audibly. But I hear it in my heart and mind. And then I talk with those who are the managers of the cemetery, and inevitably the story is told.”
What Strozier does is not just about the story. The more those who own and manage know about what is underneath the soil, the more valuable the place becomes.
“What I create through the maps I create, what I am able to show to the cemetery is available future burial spaces,” he said. “I help cemeteries maximize their acreage.”
And Strozier has something to back up that claim. He uses Palmetto Cemetery in Brunswick, Ga., as an example. It is a cemetery similar to Riverdale and Porterdale in Columbus. There are separate burial areas for blacks and whites.
“It took me over a year,” he said. “… I found 3,700 unmarked burials. But more importantly, I found 1,900 new burial spaces. And at a thousand dollars per pop, for selling just the dirt not counting all the funerary that goes in, the vaults and the monuments and everything. At a thousand dollars a pop, you do the mathematics, and all of a sudden my fee becomes meaningless.”
He charges per acre.
How is this not disturbing the dead? And the answer gets to the core of how people feel about cemeteries.
“Great question. And it is asked all the time,” he said. “Again, in Brunswick, I was standing on top of a ledger, one of those granite markers with a person’s name and epitaph. And I was taking the picture of the name. And a gentleman drives up. And he asks me, ‘Are you OK doing that?’ And I said, ‘Sir?’ And he said, ‘Are you OK standing on that grave?’ And I realized what he was asking me. He was taught by his grandparents when you go into a cemetery you don’t stand on graves out of respect and honor. And I looked at him, ‘Sir, I want you to understand something. I am here to take pictures of this grave. And there is nobody on the face of the earth who respects this grave more than I do. That’s the reason I am here.”
Spending a lot of time in cemeteries has led Strozier to a conclusion.
“When it comes to cemeteries, you have one of two extremes,” he said. “You have people like genealogists, and people like me who actually copyrighted a word – the word is cemeterian. I own the word cemeterian. A cemeterian who appreciates the heritage of a cemetery. It has nothing to do with the Halloween stuff. Nothing to do with ghosts, goblins, witches, and vampires. And it has everything to do with heritage. And what I do is preserve the heritage of the Linwood cemeteries on behalf of the legacy that comes behind us. On one end, you have those who love cemeteries. On the other end of that extreme, you have those who are phobic when it comes to cemeteries. Oh my goodness, they get creepy – they literally get chill-bumps creepy. They would tell you I would never be caught dead in a cemetery late at night. There is no way I would walk past a cemetery. They are phobic about it. Those like me, no, no,no, no. These places are a dynamic depositary of an entire community. Right here. These are encyclopedic stories of the city of Columbus, Georgia. Right here in Linwood. And it just takes a matter of time to unearth and make those stories come alive again.”
And as a Christian, it’s a place of hope, not despair.
“This strengthens my faith,” he said. “These people, many of them are brothers and sisters of my faith. Many of them are. And I know the theology that brought them here. I know the theology that brought their parents here over their baby’s grave. I understand that. And what I do know is this is just a temporary marker for something that’s eternal. In some ways, this is the threshold into that other world.”