From the Editor's Desk - Cemetery stories

Beth Welbers
Geneseo Republic
Beth Welbers editor Henry County Republic

In recent months, the issues surrounding the Geneseo cemeteries has been in the news.

From the collective gasp when the City cleaned the cemeteries after the winter without proper notification for residents to pickup items, to the City underscoring the massive costs to keep them pristine during the warmer months.

Those who know me, know I do not hail from Geneseo. Since taking this position, it has become my adopted home town. But what you can learn about a community can be learned by an afternoon in their cemeteries.

I learned that this community was founded by abolitionists. (This actually came from the Historical Society.) The Oakwood Cemetery contains grave sites of Civil War veterans laid to rest striving to gain freedom for slaves. A tribute to the founders of the community.

Oakwood is laid out in the older portion with family plots. Some of those contain graves that date from the founding of the community, in the mid-1800's to more modern times, perhaps into the 1980's and 1990's in a single plot.

Geneseo residents considered the enduring memorials to their loved ones. There are more granite and marble headstones with dates in the mid to late 1800's than in most cemeteries. The stones in the area I came from for that time are sandstone, cheaper for blue collar families, and erode more quickly.

During the 1800's it was common to lose children. A sad fact that is reflected in the plots. I encountered stones with one name of a child on one side and a sibling on the other. Monuments in the center of the plot might contain names and dates of Mother, Father, and several of the children. These also tell a story of the trials of Geneseo families.

Way in the back, I found a memorial to Ensign John Cady Lough, who died at the Battle of Midway. His family chose to make this monument a way to tell his story. This was the part of the tale they wanted told in perpetuity.

Ensign Lough

These are a small portion of the voices that were heard by way of the permanent markers families erected.

People memorializing loved ones these days have been known to place small items, balloons, and floral arrangements on the grave sites. These tell the tales again of who their loved one was, what they valued, and who they loved.

I do get it. I've done the same. When my father, also a life long farmer died, for the first year, ear corn was left on the gravesite. It was who Dad was. My siblings and I had input on the monument, which included a stand of corn and a country church. The family farm was a mile and a half from the Church my dad attended his entire life. These things were important to my Dad.

That said, the City also makes a point. There is no revenue to off set the thousands of man hours involved in mowing, trimming, and maintaining acres of cemeteries. As of the last audited financial statement, $83,000 a year was the net loss for maintaining those greenspaces. There are funds that are earmarked to go towards maintaining the City's eternal resting places, but at the current rate, will have dried up in less than 10 years. A workman having to stop and remove, mow, then replace trinkets and other items on a grave only rack up hours. Mowing around the items make the space look unkempt. The rules about the placement of items and shepherd hooks make sense.

The unmentioned concern after this is all talked to death, is that Father Time has not been kind to many of the memorials in the cemeteries. Sandstone makers have fallen off their foundations, many are broken, or unreadable due to the lichens that have grown over the decades. Gravity has had a hand in others, as the cemetery itself is on rolling hills. Nowhere in the City's budget is the money to repair any of these.

I feel it is time for the Community to take a long look at the spaces that also record their history. It may well be time for the Community to step up and devise a way to preserve these voices. It is not just the responsibility of the City, they do their part in the regular maintenance that ordinary citizens don't have time or equipment to do.