Friday, January 13, 2012

Finding Isaac's Grave

In early days, when bodies were not embalmed, funerals were held within a day or two of death. Town cemeteries were too far away to travel by wagon or buggy, so communities created country cemeteries. The land was often donated, sometimes by the family who first needed to bury one of their own. These country cemeteries dot the Kansas landscape, some containing only a few old graves, others still in active use.

About four miles north of Isaac's timber claim was Neeland's Cemetery. It had originally been named the Livingston Cemetery for the fledgling town of Livingston, but many people referred to it by the name of the family who had donated the land for the cemetery, and today, that is the name by which it is known. Neeland's Cemetery began when a workman for Neeland's Ranch died and was buried in their pasture. Following that burial, the family donated three acres for a neighborhood cemetery. I had visited Neeland's with my parents when I was a child, and I remembered the interesting old gravestones I had seen there, many of them dating back to the 1800s.

Gravestones are genealogy records chiseled in stone. One particular stone in Neeland's tells the tragic story of the collapse of a sod dugout's roof during heavy rains. Nick Davison and his wife Mary were early settlers in the community, and soon after they arrived a daughter they named Beuna Vista was born. Less than five years later, another daughter was born, and she was named Bessie. Eighteen days after her birth, the weight of the rain soaked sod roof caused the ridge pole to snap, and the collapsed mud smothered the baby and her four-year-old sister. Memorialized on the beautiful stone are these two sisters and a third daughter whose life was also brief. Eight sons were born to Nick and Mary, but no other daughters.

Neeland's continues to be the final resting place for departed loved ones today. A symbolic modern stone tells its own tragic story of a young father who died in an accident, leaving behind his widow and three young children, the tragedy depicted with a pair of hands tenderly holding three little birds.

When I began searching for Isaac's grave, I considered several possibilities. The closest cemetery to Isaac's homestead was Naron cemetery in Pratt County, only about two miles from his home and the burial place of several of his neighbors. St. John was a possibility, because it was the county seat, where Isaac shopped, banked, marketed his crops, and attended farmers' meetings. With no family living close to him, it seemed reasonable that he might have chosen the county seat. Farmington Cemetery in Macksville is where my ancestors are buried, and Isaac was friendly with all of them, along with some other neighbors buried there, so that was also a possibility. And, there was Neeland's.

Isaac mentioned several funerals in his journal, with most of the burials in either Naron or Neeland's. His Probate Records include early claims submitted by the mortician and the casket maker, but only in the final accounting when his estate closed did the three dollar expense of his burial plot finally appear, with no indication of the specific cemetery. Because there was no claim for a gravestone, I assumed that Isaac was probably buried in an unmarked grave. The necessity of holding funerals soon after death meant that bodies were rarely transported any great distance, so I decided to begin my search at Naron and Neeland's, which were the two closest cemeteries.

The names of those buried in Naron are available online, but I found no listing for Isaac. There was no complete listing online for the Neeland's Cemetery, so I began inquiring who the members of the cemetery board were. With just a few phone calls, I reached one of the board members to ask if there was a record of Isaac being buried there. He was. Both she and I assumed his was one of several old graves in that cemetery that are unmarked, but she described the location of his grave, according to their records, and my husband and I went to see what we could find.

It was a cold December day, and I had been told that Isaac was buried in the fourth row, the second lot to the south of the driveway. We counted the rows, but in an old cemetery it is often difficult to determine exactly what placement of stones represents a row. We settled on what we thought was the correct row and I began pacing off fifteen feet from the edge of the tire ruts that serve as a driveway, since she had said that the lots were fifteen feet square. After fifteen steps I stopped, disappointed to see an empty space in front of me. "It should be about here," I told my husband. "I guess Isaac is buried somewhere in this empty area."

"Look beside you," he told me. To my left and about a half a pace behind me, there was Isaac's stone--a simple square column with engraving on the top to resemble a fringed cloth spread over the column. The carved letters were worn by age, but they clearly read, "I.B. Werner, Died March 21, 1895, Aged 51." The next day we returned with a spray of holly to decorate Isaac's grave, and each Memorial when we remember family with flowers, we stop by Neeland's Cemetery to place an arrangement on Isaac's grave. Perhaps his neighbors brought flowers to Isaac's grave for a while after his death, but for decades he had been a forgotten man. At last, Isaac is remembered.


Anonymous said...

This was especially interesting, Lynda. I, too, have family buried in Neeland's Cemetary and have gone on many occasions with my mom and dad to lay flowers at their gravesites. In your research of the surrounding area, you may even have come across the farmstead where my mother was raised of Ray and Loretta Grunder. She has pointed the homestead out to me on numerous occasions when we were out driving around together. She would describe the long walks to where she had to catch the school bus. I don't think the home is there any longer, and, of course, you always expect your parent to be around to tell you the story over and over. Keep up the good work! Really enjoy your blogs.


The Blog Fodder said...

Very interesting. You are certainly right about Cemeteries being genealogical records. I love to wander through old cemeteries and see who lived and died and when. There is a graveyard in Batoche Saskatchewan where there is a small plot with 12 markers, crowded close together. I didn't even have to see the dates to know they all died in a tragic house fire.
Thank you for remembering Isaac. Disappearing into the mist of time should take centuries not decades.

amy d mcvey said...

Cashe and I went to Neelands on the 20th to lay roses on Jason's grave for our 12th anniversary. I always visit the others, and remembered the Davison girls. Upon reading their stone one day while weedeating, I became intrigued by the apparent accident. I wanted to learn more and not let their short lives go unnoticed. Imagine where I found the information I was looking for, but right above Jason's wonderful story. Thanks for letting me google and find you! (BTW I have read this blog in its entirety before, but was overwhelmed by Jas and unintentionally moved the Davison girls to the back burner.)

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Amy, It is never too late to post a comment. I'm so glad you found the story of the Davison girls. It almost seems to me that thinking of those who are no longer living is like giving them another moment of life in that thought. Lyn