published Sunday, October 27th, 2013

Cook: This man's not dead serious

So, about 15 years ago, this guy named Steve Sherfey — oh, you're gonna love him — buys the old Rico Monument building in St. Elmo from Manny Rico, who's moving to a new location.

Turns out, Rico innocently leaves behind a pile of discarded tombstones and headstones. You know, out in the back. Some were cracked or scratched and couldn't be sold. Others had an accidental misspelling or two. A few were in pristine shape, just never picked up by whoever ordered them.

Sherfey starts cleaning the place, and finds the tombstones and headstones. Well now, he thinks. Hmmm. What do we have here?

That's where this delicious prank begins: one man, sitting among the discarded tombstones, chuckling to himself.

Sherfey, you must know, doesn't walk the straight and narrow. A brilliant engineer, this guy, but not one for dullness. He likes a bit of spice in his life. A side of laughter with his daily bread.

So he loads the tombstones into his truck and hauls them to his home on Alabama Avenue, where he does the only sensible thing he knows.

He turns his backyard into a fake cemetery.

"I thought it'd be funny," he said.

Ten or so tombstones, some laid flat on the ground, others sticking up vertically. He mowed the grass regularly -- giggling, I imagine -- and kept it very visible for all of St. Elmo to see, right there on the corner of Alabama Avenue and 45th Street. He called it the Rest in Peace Cemetery, and it had everything.

Except bodies.

Somehow, the fake graveyard became, at least in the minds of neighbors, a real one.

"Everybody in the neighborhood thought it was a cemetery," said Kevin O'Steen, a St. Elmo home builder and board member of the neighborhood association. "If you looked at the GIS (geographic information system) map for the city, it showed it at the time as a cemetery."

One day, a genealogist shows up, researching the Rest in Peace Cemetery.

"The girl didn't know it was a fake cemetery," said Sherfey. "She went to the state and recorded it."

All the while, Sherfey keeps his secret.

"Little kids grew up thinking this is a cemetery. ... People moved in and thought it was a cemetery," he said. "Somebody even said they thought their ancestors were buried there."

One day, he took a good long look at one tombstone in particular. It read "Mother Hall" which, much to Sherfey's delight, was the same last name of his friends, the Hall family.

So Sunday morning, he sneaks the tombstone out of his fake cemetery and takes it to ... go ahead, guess.

"During church, I placed the 'Mother Hall' headstone in their front yard with a vase of flowers on top and lined the grave with stones," he said.

He gets to church late, and stays afterward to give the Halls time to get home.

"I arrived there in time to see 'Mother Hall' standing next to the headstone with the vase of flowers in her hand, as she read the inscription in bewilderment," he said. "The kids were standing on the porch laughing."

Which is just what Sherfey does as he remembers the story.

Several years ago, Sherfey's daughter moves into the house (Sherfey had been renting it out) so he hauls all the tombstones away. The 2011 tornadoes send a tree crashing through the house, which leads to two more chapters in the Rest in Peace tale.

First: a contractor is hired to renovate and rebuild the tree-crashed house. When he goes to file a build permit?

"The permit office wouldn't give it to him because of the cemetery," said Sherfey.

And second: people drive by to see the tornado damage and realize, to their dismay, that the cemetery is gone.

"All the neighbors would stop by and ask: where's that gravesite that used to be here?" said Sarah, his daughter.

Someone even called the city.

"It was a resident in St. Elmo who was concerned all the tombstones weren't there anymore," said Jenny Shugate, the historic preservation planner for the city at the time.

Odd how a fake cemetery can remind us not to have a fake life. What I love about Sherfey is the topsy-turvy way he spiced up a community, kind of like an Escher painting combined with a whoopee cushion. He's the town prankster, the one who keeps us laughing, and there's no measure of how valuable that is.

"He keeps everyone young at heart and [reminds them] not to take life so seriously," said Sarah.

These days, Rest in Peace Cemetery has passed on; the backyard is fenced in, plenty of green grass grows. I asked Sherfey where he put the tombstones that were once there. The first words out of his mouth were these.

"I'm not sure what I did with them," he said.

Oh no.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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sagoyewatha said...

EXCELLENT!

First thing I read this morning. Your art has made my day.

October 27, 2013 at 10:15 a.m.
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