Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Grave Situation

Sunset Memorial Park & Mausoleum
It is no secret that I like to take photographs in cemeteries. I love to look at the workmanship of the headstones, and find myself wondering about the people buried beneath them. Cemeteries are often so peaceful and quite beautiful. Did you know that cemeteries were the first public parks? As fewer people are choosing to be buried in the traditional fashion, cemeteries today are finding unique ways to bring visitors back through their gates. For example, Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis offers Beer Baron Tours, where a guided tour leads you to all the brewery heads who are buried in their cemetery.

As a genealogist, I am so appreciative of the volunteers who contribute photographs of cemeteries and headstones to the websites and I have been able to locate the gravesites of many of our relatives through them. So I don't know why it never occurred to me to volunteer to take photos at cemeteries in the St. Louis area. Visitors to the above-mentioned websites can put in requests, providing as much information as they have on the deceased, and volunteers can then "claim" the request. You then have two weeks to post the photos or list a problem if the stone cannot be located.

Last weekend I decided to claim a few graves at Sunset Memorial Park and Mausoleum, as well as one at Father Dickson Cemetery. For the graves at Sunset, I had the section numbers as well as the lot numbers for each of the requests, so I was not anticipating any problems with locating the stones. That was a grave assumption on my part. This cemetery has no other identifying markers within each section, so there was no way to know where grave 304 was located within Section 1, for example. Unfortunately the office was not open, despite the posted Saturday hours. Unless I wanted to walk the entire section looking at the names on each headstone, I realized that this would be a futile effort on a 90 plus degree day.

From there I headed on over to Father Dickson Cemetery in Sappington. This historic cemetery was opened in 1903 as a final resting place for African Americans. Due to segregation, African Americans were not allowed to be buried in any of the existing cemeteries in St. Louis. The cemetery represents 167 years of history, with the last burial taking place in the 1990s. After falling into disrepair, the cemetery is now cared for by a dedicated group of volunteers who are working to restore the 13-acre tract of land. Fortunately one of these volunteers was on-site when I arrived, as I did not know the section or grave number of the man I was researching. I had his birth and death dates (and knew that he had been murdered!), but not where he was buried. The volunteer provided me with a very interesting overview of the history of the cemetery, and then told me that he has the record book for the cemetery at his house. I later emailed him the information about the man I was searching for, and unfortunately I learned that there was no headstone for this individual. However, the volunteer did provide me with details such as the fact that the man had died in City Hospital #2, the date of burial and the exact location of the grave itself. As a genealogist, all the little bits of information help to paint a picture of your ancestor's lives. So at least I could pass all this along to his descendant even if I couldn't provide her with a photo of a headstone.

The moral of the story is to only accept assignments when the location of the burial plot is provided, and where the cemetery has a map so that I stand a fighting chance of being able to find the grave.


D Hunter said...

I can only hope as I suspect that you might, that the holder of the Fr. Dickenson cemetery record books might have them scanned or copied and copies put in a public access site. I recall when we tried to research the two slaves that lived with the Hawken Family, "Aunt Molly and Uncle Alfred" who are buried at Fr. D cemetery. At the time, and this was years ago, the records were "lost" and the owner of the cemetery living in Florida.

Mrs. Wryly said...

You have a unique skill set for this type of mission: great photography skills, good sense of direction (including able to read a map!), sleuthing abilities, determination, curiosity, desire to help, physically fit, and buckets of courage!!!

Kim Wolterman said...

Microfilm of the original record books of Father Dickson Cemetery have been donated to St. Louis County Library's Julius K. Hunter African-American Research collection by the Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery, an organization which has local control over the cemetery. So that is great news!