The recent passing of Halloween and its related imagery pertaining to graveyards in particular set me to pondering the subject of cemeteries and how we deal with the remains of our family and friends.
For more than 20 years, I have served on the board of the Helix Cemetery District. My wife is the clerk (and treasurer) for our group and, because of my proximity to her, I am officially designated as the secretary. One of my farmer neighbors also serves as an investment guru in town and looks great in a suit; it is therefore logical that he serves as president or chairman of the board (putting him in elite company with Frank Sinatra and Whitey Ford). Another farmer neighbor who stands 6 feet 6 inches tall and has been on the board for nearly 30 years anchors our crew as the member at large.
Being it such that our community’s population is sparse and our budget sometimes limited, we are a very “active” board. We do not only take our fiduciary responsibility seriously, we also dig graves. The job can be downright sorrowful at times — as in the case of neighbors who have departed this realm in their forties or fifties and will never have the opportunity to finish all they have started. Other times, there has been occasion for happy reminiscences of the deceased, especially those reaching octogenarian or nonagenarian status who have, in theory, lived a full life.
Within the confines of our district, we have four cemeteries: Helix, Holdman, Myrick and Greasewood. The Helix location was established in 1882 on land donated by the William Scott family and is very well-maintained and even irrigated. Holdman was officially designated in 1906 as the Cold Springs Cemetery; my maternal great-great-grandfather was a signatory on the charter document. It served a once-thriving little village that included a school, a church (but no tavern), a post office, a hotel, a store and several homes. Myrick (formerly called Warren) was established by pioneer German farmers adjacent to their Evangelical Lutheran house of worship, which was built in 1892. I am still a member of that congregation, which moved to town in 1924 and just celebrated their 125th anniversary. The Greasewood (or Finn) cemetery is located a half-mile north of the Greasewood Apostolic Lutheran Church, which dates from 1884. It was established by Finn farmers who immigrated to the New World in search of new opportunity.
All cemeteries, especially those that are old, provide information about a community and its denizens and I rarely pass up a chance for informal historical research. I have walked hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery, where I paid respects to Audie Murphy, and Paha Cemetery (west of Ritzville), where I discovered evidence of another enclave of German immigrant agrarians from the 1880s.
On the farm, we must sometimes fulfill the role of sexton, as well. Over the years, we have buried several dogs, two goats, and a few rabbits that were retired from kids’ 4-H projects. Daughter Annie possesses an artistic proclivity and has created numerous headstones, some in bright hues, to mark the final resting place of departed companions such as Gus, Frank and Larry.
A particular favorite recollection related to disposition of livestock remains was told to me recently by one of my well-experienced neighbors. Sometime in the 1940s, one of the family’s cows died.
My neighbor and his younger brother were charged with the task of burying the bovine. These two young guys were energetic and resourceful and, upon discovering dad’s stash of dynamite in the shed, they hatched a plan to quickly create a hole big enough to throw a cow in. The cow was drug to a safe location and the fuse was lit. The two boys leapt behind the carcass for protection from the anticipated blast — but nothing happened.
Apparently, the dynamite had gotten wet while in storage. It was probably a good thing, according to my neighbor, because the dirt scattered in the “excavation” process would have ultimately hindered efficiency. I long for the good old days when an honest kid still had access to dynamite.
Matt Wood is his son’s hired man and his daughter’s biggest fan. He lives on a farm near Helix, where he collects antiques and friends.