Who has the final say where a human body will be buried? From the day Jim Thorpe died, March 28, 1953, in Lomita, California, until 1957, when he was interred in the red marble mausoleum above in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, his body had "rested" in six different mortuaries or cemeteries.
The story of how and why his body ended up in a place he had never been is hardly credible (and you can read all about it in NATIVE AMERICAN SON after Oct. 19). At the suggestion of Thorpe's widow Patsy, two tiny, struggling towns that had faced each other across the Lehigh River since the heyday of the anthracite coal boom consolidated and took the one name: Jim Thorpe. In exchange, they got the body of the greatest all-around athlete this country has ever seen.
The hoped-for tourist boom didn't happen. But, like an off-beat fairy tale, while the town remained doggedly faithful to the memory of Thorpe, the source of its revival was right there all along, in the hearts, minds, and energy of its own citizens. By the 1990s Jim Thorpe, PA had resurrected itself as a charming, Victorian gateway to the Poconos. The isolated, dignified grave site had little or nothing to do with it.
In February 2010 Thorpe's surviving sons filed a lawsuit in a Pennsylvania federal court under the 1990 Native American Graves Protections and Repatriation Act to have their father's remains returned to Oklahoma, where he was born. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10177/1068434-139.stm. They want him to be buried in the Garden Grove cemetery, east of Oklahoma City, next to his father, Hiram. According to Jack Thorpe, the youngest son, the town of Jim Thorpe can keep the name. The family is grateful to it for taking such good care of their father for so long. But, he argues, the family never agreed with Patsy about Thorpe's burial place. The widow's right trumped theirs.
But now Patsy is dead. Times have changed, as have attitudes toward minority rights and traditions. One body, two claimants. As New York Times reporter John Branch said to me, "It's the strangest story I ever heard." And one of the saddest.