COVENTRY, R.I. (WPRI) They are shrouded by overgrown trees and covered in pine needles, leaves and other debris, but a local anthropologist believes the cemeteries that dot the state tell our story.
After Joe LyonWurm gave up his car about four years ago, slowing down helped him notice more.
“A lot of these cemeteries are ignored,” he said. “They’re such a part of the scenery, you don’t see them anymore.”
On a warm, sunny morning, LyonWurm pushed his seven-foot long, bright green bike off Arbor Drive and through a wooded area, where the latest project for his non-profit Pedal Powered Anthropology came into view.
“I hate raking my own yard,” LyonWorm said. “I wait until my neighbors complain to me. “”I like that I’m immersed in cultural history while I’m doing it.”
Coventry’s Battey family plot, with 25 marked graves ranging from 1816 to 1971, is the fifth cemetery LyonWurm has cleared.
The others were in Bristol and West Greenwich, in a state with 3200 cemeteries and the highest concentration of burial grounds in the country, according to LyonWurm.
As the 37-year old RIC graduate raked one corner of the stone-wall enclosed area, he focused on a divot in the soil. Then, he pulled a trowel out of the saddlebags on his bike.
“Can’t make out any of the inscription,” LyonWurm said while slicing through the ground cover. “But I might be able to if I had more supplies to clean it.”
LyonWurm believes, “The cemeteries tell a story.”
Including the troubling one about Rhode Island’s role in slavery.
LyonWurm’s first stop about three years ago was the grave of Bristol slave Adjua DeWolf, who died about three years after the Emancipation Proclamation. (Rhode Island officially banned slavery in its constitution in 1843.”
“It stuck with me,” LyonWurm said. “It bothered me that the rest of the cemetery was so well-tended but not this stone.”
He repaired DeWolf’s marker and continued looking for details about the people known only as the servants of the state’s founders.
“These are people who had a humanity, and a dignity but they have no story attached to them,” LyonWurm said.
The effort to uncover those stories has led LyonWurm to put rakes and other equipment on the back of his bike to clean up as many final resting places as possible.
Both ideas fit Peddle Powered Anthropology’s goal of making the scientific study of people more relatable, while also bringing history into the 21st century.
“There are few things more universally relatable than a cemetery,” LyonWurm said. “I mean we may have nothing in common with these people, but this is where we’re all going to end up.”
He acknowledges gathering details about slaves other than their names and who owned them has been far more diffiult than cleaning up cemeteries.
But he said he won’t give up, and plans on compiling the details behind the names and producing a documentary about them.
“Sometimes with a little more work than you’d expect, there’s a story to be told there,” LyonWurm said.