Grave Responsibilities

by Terry Hogan

Recently my wife and I spent a weekend in southern Illinois, near the booming areas of Stillwell and Camden. For those of you not well versed in southern Illinois, Stillwell is north of Quincy, just across the county line in Hancock County. Camden, on the other hand is near Rushville. We were in pursuit of ancestors who had the knack of being buried in remote and nearly forgotten locations.

The good news is that we stopped at Rushville and found the local genealogy and history center open on a Saturday afternoon. Even better, we found it "manned", actually "womanned", by a volunteer who used to live and teach school in Knoxville. She was enthusiastic and helpful in tracking down my great grandfather’s whereabouts. In short order, she pinpointed the location of the cemeteries where his first wife and family were buried, and where his second wife and one child from that marriage were buried. She then photocopied maps and gave oral instructions how to find these elusive cemeteries in their rural settings. One, she warned us, was visible from the road, but it was tucked behind a hog lot, and therefore easily overlooked. The other was in the woods, not visible, and difficult to find. She was right on both.

The first cemetery- Marlow, where my great grandmother is buried, is near a gravel road. A grassy lane departs from the road, bordering a hog lot, and ends at the cemetery. The cemetery adjoins the hog lot. A small, metal, handmade sign denotes the local name for the cemetery- Marlow, being that of a family that is well represented by headstones. The cemetery was well mowed and had a few, fairly recent stones, but several older stones were broken, tipped over, and a few were buried below vegetative cover. According to the landowner, the records of who was buried, and where, were loaned out and never returned.

The second cemetery was located nearby. We could not find it, despite risking our bodies to poison ivy and heavy brush. Returning to the parked car, I flagged down a very old truck, overfull with fresh-shelled corn, driven by a farmer who was likely at least in his 70’s. He had slowed, obviously interested in what the out-of-state car was doing parked on the country road, in daylight. Yes, he knew of the cemetery and we were about 100 yards off from the site. Without his help, we would have never found it. There was no lane; no sign; no fence. The cemetery, known locally by at least three different names, was in the woods, overgrown. There were a few very old stones, and one new one, replacing an old broken stone that was now nearly illegible.

In the center of this small, nearly forgotten, and clearly neglected cemetery, was a large, raised, rectangular area, with each corner marked with hand-chiseled, rough carved rectangular limestone. This is purported to be the final resting place of my great grandfather’s first wife and all but one of their children. Three children and his wife died by drowning, when crossing Crooked Creek, located nearby, at the bottom of the hill. Oral history, backed by a brief newspaper account, is that a lumber wagon driven by my great grandfather, was swept away by the flooding creek and all were drowned except my great grandfather and his eldest son. The actual site of the drowning is likely a little downstream of the current bridge crossing as the road was slightly relocated from its historical path. This cemetery is nearly lost to history, but it is protected from vandalism by its remote and hidden location. I guess that is both the good and the bad news.

The third cemetery we visited was near the town of Stillwell which, while being on the state highway map is nothing much more than a couple of old houses, one old Methodist Church and a number of house trailers that look like they may have just taken up residence where they broke down. I had been to the cemetery once, several years ago and thought that I could find it again, even though it too is unmarked, and not visible from the road. We drove up and down gravel roads, without success. I began to stop at farmhouses, looking for help. Ladybugs were swarming in the last warm weather of fall, and did not help my chances when talking to suspicious elderly farm wives. The farm wives were more interested in keeping the Ladybugs, and this stranger, out of their homes than they were in answering questions about old cemeteries.

I finely stopped at a farmhouse where a father and son were working on an old Allis Chalmers tractor. The fields were still too wet to combine beans or pick corn. I yelled hello from a distance and walked toward them. No response. I spoke again, and again no response. I explained, holding out my detailed map of the county that I was looking for a particular cemetery. I used both of the local names that the cemetery was known by. I was met with silence. I went on talking, while beginning to think of Hitchcock’s "Psycho" movie, with a more rural bent. I mentioned names of long-dead relatives buried there, and mentioned my genealogical interest. I mentioned that I had been there before, and I described what I could remember, but admitted I was unable to find it again.

The sun was low in the southwest.

Finally, the father, wiping grease from his hand, said, with considerable reluctance, that he would show me where it was. I held out my map, but he shook it away with his head. "No," he said, "I’ll show you where it is". He looked at my clothes and shoes and asked if I knew it would be muddy. I said yes, that it would not be a problem. He told me to get in my car and follow his car. Both he and his large son climbed into their car, and we followed. They stopped. We stopped. They got out. We got out. He pointed through a cornfield to a clump of trees beyond, silhouetted by the dropping sun. He and the son began to walk into the field. I offered that we could find the way from here. He said "No, I’ll show you where it is." He led. We followed. His large son followed behind. I knew my wife was a little concerned, as was I. His son never spoke a word.

We arrived at the cemetery. It was nicely fenced. It was nicely kept. It was fully hidden by the unpicked cornfield and a grove of trees. I talked with him, trying to warm him up a little while my wife looked at the markers. He confessed that he was the owner of the land. He observed that he and his son represented the 6th and 7th generations on this land. Finally, he stated that it was he who mowed, maintained, and protected the cemetery.

We failed to find a marker for my great grandmother, but did find some for her ancestors. We took a few photos and walked back to the cars, with father leading and son, bringing up the rear. I opened up the trunk of my car, showing him pictures of relatives, copies of marriage certificates, etc. trying to prove my interest and good intent to his satisfaction. He warmed slightly, but not much. He asked where we were staying and I said we were going north, up toward Nauvoo. He gave us directions, and followed us for several miles on gravel roads, driving away from his house.

He was doing a good job of protecting and maintaining this old cemetery that held members of his family as well as mine. We were likely related in some manner or another, but I don’t think I’ll ever know how. I appreciate his efforts, but I must admit, that I wished they hadn’t been quite so lavishly spent on my wife and me. I hope he never catches a vandal in that cemetery. I believe it would be unpleasant. His secret, his cemetery, is safe with us.

That was the end of our cemetery hunting for the weekend. We had run the full spectrum of cemetery care and neglect. We had encountered helpful people who were interested in helping genealogists and protecting cemeteries. One accepted the responsibility with far greater diligence than others.

In his eyes, he bore grave responsibilities.