TODAY’S TOPIC: Association Aims to Locate Forgotten Burial Grounds
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ With spunk and a dash of militancy, the Iowa-Nebraska Cemetery Protection Association aims to save old, abandoned cemeteries from a variety of threats, including the farmer’s plow.
Association members say the dead should be respected even if their descendants can’t, or don’t care to, fight for the preservation of their resting places.
″It’s basically sacred ground. We (as a society) don’t even consider cemeteries sacred today,″ said Association President Eric Driggs. ″We figure if the family’s gone, that’s it.″
Some families have long forgotten the old burial places, others recently have been forced to sell the family farm with its old family plot, he said.
″One hundred - perhaps only 50 - years from now, will your (descendants) be able to find your final resting place intact?″ asks a brochure printed by the association.
″Or will time have erased your name? Today there are countless cemeteries and family burial plots whose stones cry for attention, plead that someone care - in a seemingly uncaring, throw-away world.″
The Omaha-based association, formed last June, has attracted 20 members interested in preserving the old cemeteries scattered across the prairie of Nebraska and western Iowa.
The nucleus of the group includes members of the Greater Omaha Genealogical Society and the Old Council Bluffs Historical Recovery Development Group.
Besides respect for the dead, association members mentioned another motivation.
″Really, your tombstone is your only claim to fame,″ Driggs said of many of the pioneers and homesteaders who collectively were the heroes of the region’s early days.
Death certificates weren’t common until 1904, Driggs said, so genealogists and historians often must rely on tombstones for vital information. Although no one may have cared yesterday about the information on a particular tombstone, someone may care tomorrow and the information will have been lost forever.
However, more and more old tombstones are being destroyed each year, particularly by farmers, according to association members.
″Their motivation isn’t just strictly greed. It’s just common sense,″ Margaret Forsythe, association treasurer, said of the farmers. Although many of the abandoned cemetery plots are relatively small, she observed, plowing around them every year could be a bothersome chore.
If it is impractical to preserve a cemetery, farmers should at least record all information available from the cemetery before plowing it under, she said.
Association members say they can’t estimate how many old cemeteries have been destroyed. But they aim to find out how many abandoned cemeteries remain. They hope to attract members across Nebraska and western Iowa who will help them compile a cemetery census.
They say many farmers don’t bother to preserve the cemeteries because they don’t know anyone is interested in them.
One family cemetery near Bennington, about 15 miles northwest of Omaha, was cited as a prime example of the association’s work by member Marie Dabbs.
About 20 people were buried in the plot on farmland believed to have been acquired in 1874 by German immigrant Albert Kobs. But in 1979, Albert’s grandson, Ernest, sold part of the family farm.
The acreage sold included the cemetery, with its remaining half dozen tombstones dating back to the 1870s and 1880s. The cemetery was located about a half mile back from the nearest dirt road and in the middle of fields.
Mrs. Dabbs said she was looking for another cemetery more than a year ago when she stopped at the Kobs’ farmhouse to get directions.
Marjorie Kobs, Ernest’s wife, said she didn’t know where that cemetery was. However, she added it looked like a bulldozer was out back getting ready to do away with the Kobs’ family plot. Mrs. Kobs told her they had sold the land; legally, she said, she didn’t think there was any way to stop the new owner from doing as he wished.
However, Mrs. Dabbs told her she thought there might be something they could do. She got in touch with a member of the Douglas County Attorney’s staff. He called John Hoffschneider of Farmers National Co., the land management firm overseeing the tenant farmer on the former Kobs land.
Hoffschneider said no one ever intended to destroy the cemetery and ″special instructions were given to the ’dozer operator (working nearby) not to disturb it. It kind of irritated me when we were contacted by the county attorney saying there would be problems if we did.″
However, association members said they only wanted to remind farmers and others that such cemeteries are not forgotten and should be preserved.