Cemetery director hangs on to history

Published 12:24 am Tuesday, August 28, 2007

NATCHEZ — Drive through the Natchez City Cemetery and you will find a wealth of history wrapped in a beautiful setting overlooking the Mississippi River. At first glance, you may not notice the hard work that goes into making this small piece of our past function. Delve a bit deeper and you will surely see the love and care that is put into maintaining this Natchez treasure.

Enter Mike Downey, director of the Natchez City Cemetery. Upon entering the grounds, his hard work and passion for preserving our history is evident. The grass is freshly cut, headstones have been repaired, old flowers have been removed, broken ironwork is stored for later repair, trees and shrubs are manicured, sunken graves are leveled, and what’s more, the cemetery’s records and financial status have been a focus since Downey took over two years ago.

Downey learned about hard work and discipline from an early age. Growing up in a military family, he was rebellious until he joined the Coast Guard, he said. Downey has traveled all over the world during his career with the Coast Guard. Nine years ago, his career brought him to Natchez. He became the officer in charge of the Coast Guard Cutter Greenbrier here in Natchez. After 30 years in the Coast Guard, Downey retired. He and his family stayed on in Natchez, and through friend Don Estes, he became the director of the Natchez City Cemetery.

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“We fell in love with Natchez and decided to stay here” Downey said.

“I have been around the world and seen a lot of cemeteries, but I have never seen one with the history in the Natchez Cemetery.”

Burial records were first thing Downey noticed when he took over as director. The records from the beginning of the cemetery until around 1943 were almost non-existent.

“I am reconstructing those records now.” Downey said.

“I have identified over 6,500 names that did not exist on burial records.”

To do this, Downey walks from grave to grave, tomb to tomb diagramming and recording names and gravesites. Downey has also used dousing rods to discover unmarked graves on the grounds.

“Dousing rods will react over a grave,” Downey said.

The rods curiously move together when near a grave. Take it a step further and hold one rod over the foot of the grave and the rod will turn one way or the other. According to Downey, the rod can determine if the gravesite holds a male or a female. Of course, there is no way to tell who is buried in an unmarked grave, but just knowing that someone is there helps Downey with his research.

Downey is slowly working toward improving the cemetery on all fronts.

Financially speaking, he has recovered over $100,000 owed to the cemetery.

“We have been operating in the black for almost two years now,” Downey said.

“ I have been able to replace equipment like lawn mowers and Weedeaters.”

Always thinking ahead, Downey is looking forward to the cemetery’s Bluff Plot opening in 2010. Downey is also working to get plaques for plants and trees on the grounds.

On any given day, you can find Downey mowing, repairing a burial site or simply recording names on gravesites.

“It is amazing to see how people have demonstrated their care, love and respect for their familie,” Downey said.

The beauty and history of the Natchez City Cemetery are being restored and protected on a daily basis, he said.