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Review: FACING EAST (2019)

Eastern Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. Chances are you’ve never heard of it, but it holds a record. The 29.6 acres that make up the cemetery contain 16,000 graves. There is documentation for around 138,000 bodies, making it the most over buried cemetery in history. In Facing East, writer/director Tommy Baker looks at the history of this abused plot of land. And at the volunteers who are trying to do right by those buried on it.

Founded in 1843 by parishioners of two Methodist Churches, it didn’t take long for allegations of wrongdoing to surface. However, it wasn’t until 1984 when the parents of a young child sued the cemetery because the lot they bought for his burial was already in use that there was no real investigation.

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Using old newspapers, court footage and interviews Facing East relates the cemetery’s sordid history in an unsensationalized manner. Although accounts of babies buried in jars rather than coffins are shocking enough without any embellishment. Equally shocking is the fact the men running Eastern Cemetery at the time walked away without any punishment, since they were elderly and didn’t have criminal records.

The final segment of Facing East is at least somewhat less grim. After years of neglect and vandalism, Andy Harple formed the Friends Of Eastern Cemetery. This group of volunteers has cleaned up and maintained the cemetery in the absence of any actual ownership. It’s both heartwarming to see these people doing this and heartbreaking to hear from someone who is trying to find her mother’s grave to put a headstone on it.

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Facing East is, as I’ve said, a low key unsensationalized documentary. It feels like a hybrid of a history lesson and a true crime film as it traces the path from Thomas Shanks reselling the lots of families who moved West to those who simply saw reusing plots as business as usual.

And despite that lack of hyperbole Facing East is more infuriating than many deliberately inflammatory films of this kind. The way the families of these people were deceived and abused was horrible. As was the fact the perpetrators for all intents and purposes got away with it. Trying to add a layer of manufactured outrage would just cheapen the story.

Facing East is available to stream via Uncork’d Entertainment.

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