I first experienced graveyards as a child. On Memorial Days, my father and I would visit the Little Sioux Cemetery to decorate family graves. Five generations of his family and countless friends and acquaintances were buried there and it was always a lively outing. My father would spot the grave of a friend or relative and then tell me a story about this cousin wet the bed and that childhood friend died in the war. We would spend hours just walking around the cemetery and I would watch my father, his arms flailing and his robust voice booming, tell some animated story about someone he knew and remembered.
Often, on that day when other people were speaking in hushed tones, they would stare at us because we would be laughing and enjoying the trip to familiar graves. It was in that graveyard that I grew to love family history, storytelling, and cemeteries. Many people thought graveyards were creepy, all full of dead people. But as my Dad used to say, “It’s not the dead ones you have to worry about; it’s the ones who are still alive!” To me, graveyards were a place of comfort and warmth. They were places where my father told stories of his family and mine and I felt the flow of generations past.
It was years later in college when I developed an academic interest in graveyards. I was studying introductory anthropology. One of the readings was the groundbreaking article, “Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow,” written by James Deetz and Edwin S. Dethlefsen. I became interested enough in cemetery art and symbolism to check out an Iowa State thesis research and written by Coleen Nutty. Because Professor Nutty was on campus, I went to talk to her. After that, I decided to begin my own research into the cemeteries of Harrison, County, Iowa. I wrote my master’s degree thesis, “Gender Differences in Harrison County, Iowa Cemeteries”.
When I began I had no idea that I would become so involved in cemetery preservation. I joined the Association for Gravestone Studies. I soon realized that the graveyards of Harrison County and Iowa were in jeopardy of being destroyed. I lobbied the Iowa General Assembly for three years for passage of a law in Iowa that protected cemeteries in the state. In March of 1985, a bill protecting Iowa graveyards was paased by the Iowa General Assembly and later signed into law by Iowa Governor Terry Brandstad.
I worked with the Daughters of the War of 1812 to commemorate three 1812 soldier’s graves buried in Harrison County: Jesse Purcell, Lucius T. Raymond, and Jacob Yeisley. One of those 1812 soldiers did not have a gravestone. I petitioned the Veteran’s Adminstration to get a gravestone for Lucius T. Raymond. To my surprise a two-hundred and fifty pound segmented-top marble tablet came crated to my doorstep. Apparently, the VA expected me to erect the gravestone in Magnolia Cemetery, which I did.
Often people told me of gravestones that they had found in retaining walls, backyards, and road ditches. I was able to return some of them. For instance, I restored the grave of Uriah Hawkins, the second person to settle in my home county of Harrison County. His marker was in a ditch on Highway 44. For two summers I worked as the caretaker of the Purcell Cemetery in Magnolia Township, Harrison County, Iowa, to help reclaim it after it had become overgrown with brush and weeds.
All of these experiences helped me to understand the interest people have in gravestones and graveyards and the valuable treasury of information that can be found there. It is because of that value that I embarked on my research and now write this blog. I hope you will enjoy what you read.
Douglas M. Rife