Tombstone tour: Finding the value in Nebraska cemeteries

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May 23, 2012 - 7:00pm

Sitting atop a hill, just south of the small village of Douglas, the Rosehill and St. Martin's cemeteries are the setting you would imagine. On a sunny spring afternoon, there is little activity beyond the birds and breeze floating through the trees. The adjoining cemeteries are among between 50 and 60 in Otoe County. Recently, three had more activity than usual.

Early Nebraska pioneers, a movie star and civil war veterans are among notables buried in the southeast Nebraska County. They were among many featured on a recent bus tour sponsored by the Otoe County Genealogical Society .


Photos by Perry Stoner, NET News

Click here for a full-size version of this slideshow.


The first stop occurs at Christ Lutheran Cemetery south of Dunbar. Mona Kuhlenengel from the cemetery board tells how the rural cemetery got started.

"The cemetery was laid in November of 1893, while the church was under construction and the first burial on the cemetery a little girl named Maria Rode. Maria Rode died Nov. 2, 1893 at age 3 years 5 months and 7 days. She was buried November third."

Rode died in a house fire just half a mile north of the cemetery adjacent to the small church of the same name. Sometimes it's the tombstones or monuments that are noteworthy. Kuhlenengel explains the meaning behind that of John Beckfield who came to the area from Germany in 1881.

"An angel dropping flowers on a grave is grief, mourning and a lily is a symbol of innocence purity and the resurrection a petal plucked from the whole flower is like a person leaving the whole of humanity as a petal drops death occurs."

Next the bus tour heads southeast to near Talmage. At St. Paul's Lutheran Cemetery , Duane Arends explains his connection to the area.

"My great-great grandfather came over from Germany with four children on the ship Ernestine. I have four sets of great-great grandparents in this cemetery and three sets of great grandparents, as well as grandparents. I will be the fifth generation of Arends' to be buried on this cemetery."

It's here that Otoe County Genealogical Society President Mary Hanke (hankie) points out tombstones that are unique to particular era.

"If you'll notice all these monuments that look like trees, those are all Woodman of the World memorials and I don't even think Wyuka (in Nebraska City) has this many."

From about 1890 to 1920 Woodman of the World life insurance policies included a provision to provide tombstone upon the policy holder's death. This is an example of small pieces of history that can be learned at cemeteries.

Mary asks the tour, "Does anybody know who Anthony Dexter is? He was a movie star."

Dexter was born in the area. He was a movie star in the 1950s and 60s including the title role in Valentino. Right next to Dexter is another interesting story; two tombstones with the same date of death. Local resident Marita Kuhlenengel explains they were pilots who died in a plane crash in 1975.

"They were buried side by side because they were good friends. That was out by Chadron where the plane crashed in a snowstorm."

Caretakers had these cemeteries looking their best. But that's not always the case. Of Otoe County's fifty-some cemeteries, the Genealogical Society lists 23 as abandoned. These are often left behind when a rural church closes or remain from more than a century ago when it was common for deceased to be buried on family-owned land. Today they're aging tombstones with overgrown grass or tucked away in tree groves.

That's the case for Kay Busekist who came along on the tour. One of her great-great grandmothers is buried on property near where she lives.

"South of my folks there is a cemetery that has my great-great grandmother on it and so we've kind of taken over that one, in fact we were just there yesterday mowing it. It's just a little tiny cemetery that has eight people on it, kind of in the midst of a bunch of trees and it's kind of neat to see that we are recognizing them now and that those people aren't forgotten there."

Otoe County is probably not unusual in its number of abandoned cemeteries, but the bus tour is part of an effort to change it. According to state law, county governments are responsible for the upkeep of abandoned cemeteries. Hoping to raise funds and awareness, the OCGS is sponsoring a volunteer cleanup day for abandoned cemeteries in July. For OCGS President Mary Hanke and her sister Barb Wilhelm, this effort began with a personal journey. As children, they tagged along when their mother searched for the unmarked grave of her grandmother.

"She was one of those German immigrants that passed shortly after they got here. Our mother was looking for her in the 70s, and we've continued on her trail and we have walked the same cemeteries that she walked. And she was doing this all before the Internet and before digital cameras. And it says she's buried at the Dunbar Lutheran Cemetery. There is no Dunbar Lutheran Cemetery. " She said, "And we still don't know where she is. We keep thinking in all this that we're doing for everything, we're gonna stumble across her. And if she doesn't have a stone, we want to put a stone on there. I mean she is our great great grandmother. "

Wilhelm says walking the county's cemeteries, they've found them to be a valuable source of local history.

"You can follow the migration. I mean it's really interesting to me that where they came from. You know, like there was like at our cemetery, there's a lot of English. A lot of English. So this whole little community, you can kind of see their culture as the towns developed and everything, what countries they came from, how they handled things or what kind of occupations they had. "

Wilhelm continues by pointing out another interesting piece of history discovered. "The diphtheria epidemic in the 1870s. There are several that in Unadilla , for instance, there's a father and six children and they all died within just a matter of days of each other. And we've seen that almost at every cemetery we've walked."

At the tour's last stop, historic Camp Creek cemetery south of Nebraska City is home to dozens of those among the first settlers of the state. Tour host Lucille Sharp explains the location's history goes back even farther than that.

"Even in the very earliest of days you would see not only the American Indians, we had Free Soilers, the Abolitionists that would follow the Jim Lane trail, along with some of the earliest settlers that came here looking for agricultural land. This area was named because of the Indians that camped along the creek and these Indians were the Omaha, the Otoe and the Missouri."

Nebraska City is also known for the underground railroad during during the slave era. Sharp points out the connection in the southwest part of the cemetery.

"This is the stone of Barbara Cagy Mayhew. You've heard of the Mayhew cabin in Nebraska City, this is Barbara. This is her stone and she died in 1882."

While touring cemeteries may seem unusual at first, it is likely an artistic monument or piece of history will be of interest to most anyone.

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