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The Corpse That Grew a Beard

by

Shane Ratledge

Back when my mom was a "littlun'," most families didn't have TV. So, everyone would do all the work by Friday, go to town on Saturday, and attend church on Sunday. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons were spent sitting on the porch and visiting with friends and family. Much of the time, the older folks would tell stories of by-gone days.

Mom remembers asking one afternoon, "Could you tell us a ghost story?"

Bessie McKeehan, my mom's great-grandmother, answered, "Now, this is a true story, because I saw it with my own two eyes. An old man was buried in the family cemetery out in the country at Clearwater. Years later, he was dug up, and we was all there lookin' on. He'd grown a long, white beard even though he was dead. It was grown down to his waist. But that man had always been clean-shaven while he was livin'! When the air hit him, his beard crumbled and fell flat! I was as scared as I'd ever been in my whole life!"

When my mom heard this family legend, she said that the hairs on her neck stood straight up! Mom believed Granny McKeehan, because she never lied to her.

Neither my mom nor my late grandmother who was also listening thought about the story until years later. Yet, surprisingly, they would encounter the story of the corpse that grew a beard for a second time. Soon after my mom got her master's degree, she continued work on the family tree as a hobby. In 1973, my parents and grandparents visited Floyd Hughes, a distant cousin, in Athens, Tennessee.

After talking for a while about the family history, he began a strange tale, "Now y'all probably won't believe this story! David William McDonald, Bessie McKeehan's grandfather, wanted to be buried under the apple tree in their private family cemetery near his house. He died before his wife, and she granted his wishes. But, his wife, Mariah, wanted to be buried on hallowed ground in the Clearwater Baptist Church Cemetery; yet she also wanted to be buried with her husband. So, when she died seven years later, he was dug up and transferred to the church cemetery and buried beside her. After he was brought up, they opened the casket lid and found his corpse had grown a long, white beard! That man was always clean-shaven! When the air hit him, his beard fell flat on his chest!"

My mom, the super sleuth, thinks that in every legend there's a kernel of truth. Years later, after I was born, she found a scientific article that provided some confirmation regarding the validity of this story. The article concluded that hair, as well as fingernails, would actually grow on corpses if protein were available in fatty deposits in the body. Granny McKeehan and Cousin Floyd didn't understand the scientific ideas behind their observation, but they understood what they saw. Observation is the first step in science. For them, seeing is believing; and for us, truth is stranger than fiction!

Shane Ratledge
1993

NOTE: Shane's great-great-great-great-grandfather David William McDonald was born Nov. 15, 1825, died Aug. 5, 1893, and was first buried in the McDonald Family Cemetery adjacent to his home in Clearwater Community. After his wife's death on Jan. 7, 1900, he was disinterred and moved to a plot beside her in Clearwater Baptist Church Cemetery, McMinn County, TN.

"THOU SHALT NOT STEAL." DEUTERONOMY 5 : 19

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