Beneath a mound in Bessemer, Alabama, an explorer shines his torch around a hidden room. Signs of rot and decay are everywhere, and the floor is littered with dirt and debris. But as he takes a closer look, he realizes that this funeral home is not wholly abandoned – and he makes a discovery that will send shivers down your spine.
In December 2014, a blogger known as Naaman Fletcher made a post on his site, What’s Left of Birmingham. Active since 2009, Fletcher is an urban explorer whose photolog focuses on ruin and decay in and nearby Birmingham, AL. This post, however, contained something truly shocking – and its story soon spread.
The spot that Fletcher had chosen to explore was Memorial Mound – an abandoned burial site in Bessemer, a city just 18 miles from Birmingham. Today, it is a bizarre building – a forgotten relic sited between two housing projects in the rougher part of town. However, its builder had conceived it as a new approach to burying our dead.
Clyde Booth grew up in rural Kentucky, where he helped his uncle to dig graves. As he worked, moreover, he observed how easy it was for burial plots to become unkempt and overgrown. Surely, he thought, there had to be a better way to honor the dead? So, in 1969, he began researching the catacombs and mounds that had been used by the people of ancient Rome.
Impressed that many of these tombs had survived intact for thousands of years, Booth began to wonder if these same techniques could be used in the 20th century. So, in 1990, he bought a 16-acre plot of land in Bessemer. There, he hoped to realize his dream of building a modern burial mound.
Inspired by more traditional above-ground mausoleums, Booth had the idea of building an underground version. And while drawing on the burial customs of ancient societies, he planned to update the concept with modern technology. While bodies were to be interred within the mound, mourners would be able to access their information via computers.
So it was that in 1992, dream became reality, and Booth’s Memorial Mound opened its doors. Located some eight feet below ground, it consisted of a single large room where caskets were interred on metal racks each as much as ten feet tall. The facility also included a chapel and a showroom for Booth’s business, which sold caskets.
As for entering, the structure was accessed via a stairway from street level, although relatives of the dead were not allowed to enter the room where the caskets were kept. Instead, they were invited to place memorials and tributes on an interior wall or to view pictures of their loved ones on Memorial Mound’s computers.
That inaugural year, the average cost of a funeral in the United States was around $3,800. Burial in Booth’s Memorial Mound, meanwhile, started at just $1,800 – making it a cheap option for families in Bessemer. In fact, even the priciest option came in at just $2,200. Apparently, these tariffs each included space inside the mound, a tombstone and charges for opening and closing the vault.
For his part, Booth, it seems, was delighted with his creation. He published brochures proclaiming it to be the “most beautiful burial facility in the USA” – and began taking referrals from local funeral homes. However, after four years, fewer than a dozen people had been buried at Memorial Mound.
Finally, then, in 1996, Booth gave up on his dream. Blaming the nearby funeral homes for ceasing to recommend his facility, he called time on Memorial Mound. For the next few years, those with loved ones buried there were still able to access it. But then, in 2000, Booth decided to lock the doors for good.
When Booth then eventually died of a heart attack in 2009, a guardian took over ownership of Memorial Mound. However, it soon fell into a state of disrepair. Looters scoured the building for scrap metal, while the once-futuristic entrance became scruffy and overgrown. Then, in late 2014, Booth’s vision stepped back into the spotlight once more.
On December 2, 2014, Naaman Fletcher’s article was published online. The piece contained 20 photographs of Memorial Mound, now looking decayed and ravaged by time. Yet there was one sinister element of the discovery that really got people talking – and led to several other urban explorers wanting to see the ruin for themselves.
Soon, videos began to appear online, each revealing more about the dilapidated state of Memorial Mound. One, published on YouTube on January 12, 2015, shows photographer Jake Evans and friends exploring the building with the help of a GoPro camera. And in a 2015 interview with local news agency WIAT 42, Evans likened the experience to arriving on a horror movie set.
As soon as they got inside the building, the four friends were struck by a moldy smell. Then, using torches to light up the dark space, they revealed an interior that had clearly seen better days. Floors and surfaces were covered in junk and debris, while drawers and cupboards hung open from where vandals had stripped the place of valuables.
However, the worst was still to come. When the friends stumbled across a white casket, they prized open the lid to take a look inside – and shockingly, the box still contained human remains. It seemed as if the online rumors were true: Memorial Mound had been closed down with some of its dead still inside.
From there, matters only got more macabre. “Looking up you could see the other caskets, and you could see [bodies] rotting through them,” Evans said. “You can actually see some liquid or something coming through it. In a couple of years from now, those bodies are just going to fall out and just hit the ground.”
Elsewhere, the friends found some poignant reminders that Memorial Mound had once housed loved ones much missed by relatives and friends. On the marble walls, a few lonely wreaths and floral tributes remained. And in one spot, they even found a bent and discarded plaque bearing the name of one of the mound’s unfortunate residents.
According to Evans, the response to his video has been mixed. While some local people thanked him for bringing the issue to people’s attention, others criticized the explorer for trespassing in a burial ground. Meanwhile, Evans himself believes that something needs to be done before Memorial Mound falls even further into disrepair.
Two days after the video was published, police arrived and boarded up the facility. Then, on January 16, 2015, they removed seven sets of human remains from inside the tomb. Furthermore, although some were claimed by relatives and re-interred in alternative locations, there were other bodies that remained in limbo, with the authorities unable to trace any family members. So, far from being the “most beautiful burial facility in the USA,” Memorial Mound became an ugly reminder of how quickly some people can be forgotten.