The Burial of Allen Ketlaw

Fog lingers in the hollows of North Central Pennsylvania

As most of you are aware, I love walking cemeteries.

I enjoy looking at the artwork that covers many of the stones. I find the sayings chiseled into the stones interesting as I read what their families thought about the fate of their loved ones. I am fascinated by the interesting pieces of history that can be found on the stones.

Traditionally, there are people who have been excluded from burial in cemeteries. Those who were criminals, murderers, or suicides were not allowed to find peace in death by being permitted burial in grounds held sacred by the church. Even in modern times, some of these religious organizations still refuse to have society’s unwanted interred within their burial grounds.

What happens to the body when the church refuses to bury the dead in their grounds? In modern society other burial locations that are not connected to religious organizations are available for society’s undesirables. However, in olden times, if the body was denied burial in a cemetery, it was up to the family to find a place to bury their dead. Often these unwanted bodies were hidden away in some remote grave that was unmarked and has long since been forgotten.

Arch Bristow, in Old Time Tales of Warren County, records the story of one such case where the body was denied burial in sacred grounds and an odd event that happened when he was finally permitted buried.

The story involves a man named Allen Ketlaw who lived in the northern part of Warren County. Little is known of Ketlaw other than he was a very unpleasant man who was unpopular with his neighbors. When Ketlaw committed suicide by shooting himself, his neighbors were faced with a dilemma. According to tradition, Ketlaw’s body could not be buried on sacred land because of his manner of death. Due to his unpopularity with his neighbors, nobody wanted to bury Ketlaw’s body on their land and for five days the body lay in a coffin waiting for a burial that was being denied.

Finally, one local farmer gave permission for the body to be interred on his land. Maybe the farmer decided that Ketlaw needed to be properly buried. Maybe the farmer decided to give in to the pressure of having the body buried. Maybe the farmer just wanted to help put the suicide behind so the community could move on. Whatever the reason was for his decision, the farmer selected a piece of wooded land – most likely in the far reaches of his property – for the grave to be dug and Ketlaw’s body buried.

The simple funeral was attended by a crowd of curious onlookers. The men started to dig Ketlaw’s grave within a grove of elms. Seeing Ketlaw was not liked by many, a shallow grave was quickly produced. They could dump his body into the ground, quickly cover it, and people could get back to their everyday lives.

The diggers scrambled out of the shallow hole as an eerie silence covered the land. As they began to lower the coffin into the shallow grave, a strange sound fell upon the burial party. From somewhere nearby a mournful voice wailed, “Dig it deeper, dig it deeper!”

All chaos broke loose.

Women fainted. Men fled in terror. People thought that it was Ketlaw himself who was demanding his body was properly buried.

Finally, someone demanded that the instructions given by the phantom voice be followed. The gravediggers did just that – they lifted the coffin back out of the grave and began digging the hole deeper. Once the hole was at a proper depth, the coffin was lowered once again into the hole. The grave was quickly filled in without further incident.

Had the spirit of Allen Ketlaw returned to see his body received a decent burial? Or, as Bristow suggests, was it merely the branches of an ancient elm rubbing together causing a noise that sounded like the voice of Allen Ketlaw?

Whichever is the case, the deeper grave seemed to have worked. The spirit of Allen Ketlaw was never heard from again.

Note: My guess is Allen Ketlaw is a pseudonym for a real person and a real event, but I have not been able to trace Ketlaw beyond Bristow’s story.

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